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Addressing the Elephant in the Room: The Dos and Don’ts of Public Brand Apologies

Thunderfoot Team

Is it too late now to say sorry? Corporate apologies are a delicate matter that can easily go awry.

A new day, a new fall from grace. It feels like you can’t read the news without discovering that another beloved brand has made a colossal misstep, betraying its consumer base and compromising its values in the process.

Perhaps it’s simply a byproduct of the immense pressure placed on modern brands to be all things to all people — to master every social platform, function as both full-service retailer and aspirational lifestyle brand, offer free overnight shipping, run a best-in-class blog, launch creative brand activations, tout sustainable business practices, and participate in political and social discourse — all while manufacturing stylish, high-quality products that people love.

With so many different avenues tempting a PR scandal, it’s no wonder that today’s brands are regularly running afoul of public opinion. But once the crime is committed, can audiences be won over a second time? Let’s take a look at a few of the most memorable brand apologies in recent years as case studies for steps brands can take — and avoid taking — to earn back consumer trust.

1. Uber Loses Its Way

After a seemingly endless series of increasingly audacious scandals, rideshare giant Uber recently rolled out a commercial featuring a message from Dara Khosrowshahi, the company’s new CEO.

It’s a lovely video, to be sure, in which Khosrowshahi explains that the company plans to “move in a new direction.” Getting there, he says, “begins with new leadership, and a new culture.” It’s a vague message that concludes with Khosrowshahi telling riders “you’ve got my word, that we’re charting an even better road for Uber, and those that rely on us every day.”

It’s just that, at a company whose problems primarily revolved around the antics of its former CEO Travis Kalanick, I’m not sure the “word” of a new, untested (and, sigh, male) CEO is worth all that much just yet.

I’m torn here, because I realize the company had to do something to try and earn back the trust of riders — and drivers — after years of bad leadership and even worse publicity. But I wish the company had done something more meaningful, creative, and tangible, that truly gave back to its drivers — rather than this placating measure in the face of a massive lawsuit.

I can’t help but think of the feel-good video that Uber competitor Lyft released earlier this year. A PR stunt? No doubt. But the video turned the spotlight on the thousands of often overlooked employees who keep both of these companies running: the drivers.

2. Starbucks Tries to Reverse Racism

You don’t have to be a coffee drinker to have heard about Starbucks’ latest snafu. The media erupted in outrage when employees at a Starbucks location in Philadelphia called the cops on two black men who were simply sitting in the café without having purchased anything. The incident ended with both men in handcuffs, being led out of the shop by police officers, video of which prompted an uproar heard around the world.

Executives took swift action, announcing they would close all stores for an afternoon in order to conduct anti-racism training with employees. In response, some criticized the company for taking a half-hearted stab at a complex issue, arguing that unconscious bias can’t be solved with a series of hastily created training videos.

The company took things one step further, announcing a month after the incident that, moving forward, anyone is welcome to sit in Starbucks stores or use store bathrooms — regardless of whether they’ve purchased something. The latter move served to eliminate opportunities for employees to use discretion in deciding who “should” and “shouldn’t” be loitering. It made the company’s point: all are welcome (even if it means our stores become public restrooms).

However you feel about Starbucks’ approach, you have to admit: the corporation took tangible action to correct a wrong, at great risk to their own bottom line. CEO Kevin Johnson issued an apology as well — but when it comes to building an empathetic, customer-focused brand, actions speak louder than words.

3. Wells Fargo Commits to “Fixing What Went Wrong”

Remember the Wells Fargo account fraud scandal? You know the one: when it came to light that everyone’s favorite neighborhood bank had created millions of fraudulent savings and checking accounts on behalf of Wells Fargo clients without their consent?

What a nightmare — but don’t worry, they promise not to do it again! They even said so in a commercial, so you know they definitely won’t.

In the spot, the bank promises to hold itself accountable and “find and fix issues more quickly.” That’s great! They should definitely find and fix those issues. But I’d love some more detail on the new processes they’ll be using going forward: who, exactly will be tasked with finding and fixing? What will they be trained to look for? And is a self-congratulatory, slickly produced apology commercial really enough to make consumers forget the bank’s fraudulent creation of some 1,534,280 unauthorized deposit accounts and 565,433 credit card accounts between 2011 and 2016?

When the wrong is just so wrong — and was committed at the expense of innocent customers — it may take more than a “we’ll be better” marketing campaign to win back trust.

4. Chipotle Tries — and Fails — Not to Poison Customers

Dark was the day in late 2015 when everyone’s favorite fast-casual Mexican grill was found to have given customers E. Coli. Darker still were the months that followed, during which Chipotle was linked to thirteen additional outbreaks of foodborne illnesses including salmonella and norovirus.

After the series of outbreaks, Chipotle closed its stores to address and reimagine its food safety protocols. The company launched advertisements and posted an apology on its website, along with updated food safety guidelines. Founder and CEO Steve Ells even apologized to former nice guy Matt Lauer on national television. “I feel terrible about that,” he told Lauer. As terrible as the people who paid $9 to contract an intestinal infection from your restaurant’s ill-handled chicken? Probably not.

I’m not all that impressed by the company’s decision to close doors. Executives had no choice but to try and eliminate the spread of potentially life-threatening illnesses that resulted from the consumption of their core product. However, despite their similarities, Chipotle’s efforts shouldn’t be equated to Starbucks’ decision to voluntarily pause business for anti-racism training. It’s up for debate as to whether the odd barista’s racist inclinations are really the employer’s problem. Product that’s infected with norovirus and salmonella, on the other hand, falls squarely onto Chipotle’s list of corporate concerns.

That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed a delicious burrito since the great Chipotle scandal of 2015. To the contrary — I regularly indulge in a carnitas bowl, brown rice, black beans, heavy on the guac, please. Which begs the question: if a brand apologizes but no one hears them over the clamor to continue buying their products, was it even worth the trouble?