When brands apologize (the good, the bad, and the ugly)

Estimated reading time
3 minutes
10th December 2019
Author: Chris McKay
Posted in: People, skills and leadership

It’s not often that a brand gets an apology right. Remember when Pepsi apologized for the tragic Kendall Jenner commercial with “we didn’t mean it”? These corporate public relations-approved apologies only give the impression of being sorry and backtrack their original intentions to us.

Sean O’Meara, co-author of The Apology Impulse and public relations professional, argues that the corporate world has ruined the sanctity of the apology by failing to say sorry.

“If you’re going to apologize when you fail, you don’t get to speak to your own virtues,” he argues. “The worst habit an apologizer can fall into is leading with a qualifying character reference, or the Schrodinger’s apology.”

There have been a couple of pretty interesting brand apologies in the last few weeks. Let’s take a look at what worked (and what definitely didn’t):

Did Peloton give the worst apology ever?

In this controversial commercial, we see a young woman surprised with a Peloton bike. She takes multiple selfies over a year-long journey to get “fit”. Can you spot what riled people up?

Since the commercial’s release, people have taken to Twitter in droves to poke fun at it.

How did Peloton react to this backlash? They apologized…I think?

Screenshot quoting the Peloton spokesperson. It reads: "Our holiday spot was created to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey...we're disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial."

Ping-ponging the blame back to the consumers who took offense at your marketing is not apologizing.

They’re trying to remove themselves from blame entirely. This does not work. In fact, Peloton’s stock fell 9.12%, which stock analysts found was due to the negative publicity over the ad. This amounted to a $1.5 billion loss in market value. Negative press and failure to apologize properly can impact your bottom line.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for everyone involved. The actress from the commercial, Monica Ruiz, was approached by Aviation Gin, which Ryan Reynolds is a stakeholder of. They made this reactive commercial to piggyback off of the backlash:

It doesn’t explicitly mention Peloton but if you compare the two titles of the videos, it’s pretty clear.

Nielsen Norman Group’s diva dilemma

Speaking of completely missing the mark, let’s take a look at a recent social media post by Nielsen Norman Group.

Screenshot of a Twitter post that reads: "Do you know a design diva? Could you be one? Know the fine line between being assertive, confident and successful instead of intimidating and condescending toward colleagues and clients."

Yes. That really happened.

I think this Twitter user sums it up pretty nicely:

The original tweet by Nielsen no longer exists. Instead of apologizing, they tried to sweep the whole thing under the rug. They deleted the tweet, swapped out every mention of the word “diva” for “snob” in the article, and redirected the links.

While they took action to “correct” their mistake, their radio silence and lack of taking any responsibility did not go down well with users.

The Daily Carnage: A beacon of hope

A favorite newsletter of over 30,000 marketers, The Daily Carnage could do no wrong in the eyes of their subscribers…until recently.

Last Friday, they included a quote from Woody Allen. Subscribers were understandably upset.

Screenshot of Facebook post that reads:A Woody Allen quote? Is this real? Did Carney get hacked by rape apologists or all you all just creating drama- at the expense of survivors- for buzz? Also this is a basic ass quote that’s been attributed to more than a dozen people and has no direct relevance to marketing. Disappointing, to say the least.

Unlike the other brands I’ve mentioned in this article, The Daily Carnage (owned by Carney agency) stepped up. They knew they’d made a mistake, they owned up to it, made an excuse-free apology, and took action.

First, they made a quick statement on Facebook:

Screenshot that reads: "Hey - this is Rob Carney. We screwed up. We're sincerely sorry and promise to do better in the future. There is no excuse.

Then, they followed up with a full email apology on Monday:

In our Friday Daily Carnage, we quoted Woody Allen. We recognize this and sincerely apologize for our oversight. We want to thank those who spoke up and educated us. Instead of sending out an immediate response, we decided it was more important we understand our wrong and determine the appropriate corrective action so it doesn’t happen again. Over the weekend, we asked Gloria Pytlak to take over the role as Chief Editor on the Daily Carnage team. She will contribute to writing sections and having the last look of every Daily Carnage before it hits your inbox every morning. Some of you may know her as one of the leaders behind MissFits. The Daily Carnage will always be your handpicked list of the best marketing content. With the goal of helping all in the marketing profession become the sharpest marketer in the room. We made a mistake. But you can count on us to listen and take action to prevent it from happening a second time.

This is an apology. No redirecting, no erasure, no finger-pointing, just an honest apology that owns up to their mistake.

They listened to the negative feedback and made changes. They brought on a Chief Editor with experiences that will help prevent similar incidents happening again in the future.

You can’t guarantee that you’ll never make mistakes, but how you deal with them moving forward is what defines your brand.