Handling mistakes

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Apologizing the human way

Humans make mistakes. But whenever we do, we should take this as an opportunity to grow and improve.

This implies a few things: (1) that we have fully realized the mistake, (2) that we have taken responsibility (whether it be apologizing to any relevant parties or taking the fault for the error) for it, and (3) that we have improved in a way that in the future we would be less likely to make the same mistake. Living as part of a complex society we have responsibilities to those around us. From my personal experience I have seen the impact that my actions and words have on others. It is important to grasp that impact and learn to apologize in a timely manner.

For example, one time as I was conversing with a friend of mine, I used the wrong pronoun for them. They had previously told me which pronouns they prefer. As soon as I spoke the wrong pronoun out loud, I caught my mistake and apologized on the spot. What I understood quickly was how ingrained is the binary system of the world within us and how, apparently, I need to work on using the right pronouns for everyone. The “he vs. she” discourse completely ignores possibilities for the existence of other categories or even such that do not want to be categorized. I promised to work towards not making that mistake as I value my friend. This situation taught me how to handle a mistake by the process of realization through apology to an action (the promise). I know very well I am in no way perfect and mistakes are bound to happen. No one is, but we should all strive towards faster realization rather than perfection. Being in the wrong is human, but what is more human is valuing the impact of your error on others and society. To me, growth is much more showing to one’s character than a strive for perfection. Thus, brands should do the same.

Apologizing the brand way

Many brands have been viewed through the prism of humanized characteristics. [Here are a few resources on what a brand is, how brand identities can be developed and the humanization of brands.] Marketing specialists talk about loyalty, trustworthiness, identity, reputation, etc. Brands are the subjects of sentences – “Brands trigger emotions in people”, “The brand competes with another brand”. Thus, I would say that if companies are seeking to anthropomorphize or humanize their brand, then they should also be able to undertake the responsibilities ‘being human’ comes with. In this case, I am specifically focusing on the way people treat error-making. For instance, if a brand posts the wrong image on their social media, then they should be held accountable for that mistake as any other human would be. As I mentioned above, human interaction is about growth rather than perfection. This would mean that customers would perceive a  brand’s self-awareness of a mistake as of greater value than being externally pointed towards the wrongdoing.

And indeed, brands do make mistakes. It is only human of them to do so. Avon’s 2019 ads on a product for ‘thigh dimples’ caused outrage among the public. This product comes after multiple brands decided to discard photoshop in their campaigns such as ASOS. The fact that they admitted to messing up and restated their love towards their customers can be considered as their way of realizing their mistake. One can only hope that this is not repeated.

Dove’s 2017 ad on Facebook featuring a black woman turning into a white woman with a subtle placement of their body wash to the bottom right was hit by a storm of accusers. Many considered the ad to be offensive and racist. Following this, they apologised by stating they “missed the mark”, but by reading the twitter comments one can conclude that this was not enough to satisfy the public. The passivity in their response was not perceived well. Moreover, the marketing teams should have seen their ad in all perspectives before releasing it. The fact that no one realized how these images could be perceived as racist makes the brand even more untrustworthy.

The United airlines incident in 2017 has to be one of the more unsettling cases of wrongdoing, which quickly turned into a major PR disaster. Before actually apologizing to the customer being thrown out, they apologized for “the overbook situation”. Targeting the apology towards the wrong issue is unacceptable and offensive to both the suffering customer and any other future customers. Not addressing the actual issue was the worst the company could do. Many brands can learn from this example on what NOT to do when handling a mistake.

To finish on a good note, KFC’s apology in the form of “FCK” hfollowing the fiasco of chicken shortage in their restaurants seems like one of the better examples on dealing with errors. This mistake may not be as unsettling as dragging a customer off of flight with force, but it still shows that by making fun of themselves and transforming the mistake into a different marketing campaign can only benefit the brand.

Best practices for handling a mistake

Brands should seek ways to make better choices in advertising campaigns. Yes, brands should most definitely check any campaign before it sees the light of day, but they should also be quick in case an error occurs. After all, it is humans who sit behind the scenes. And whenever a mistake happens, customers expect brands to apologize on their own accord. Here are some of my recommendations for how brands may choose to handle an error:

Check , Check, Check

Companies either have in-house branding/marketing agencies or hire external ones. But these agencies have research teams that develop full profiles of a particular  brand’s target markets. This would mean that they also understand what those target markets do not enjoy seeing. Thus, marketers and research teams should consistently check how the campaign will be perceived as it is being developed. It is outrageous to think that the Dove ad mentioned above was watched by junior and senior level employees and none of them caught the fact that the ad can be seen as racist. So, as with any type of business project, it should most definitely undergo a multi-leveled check.

Apologize on time

The information turnover in online and offline media sources is so quick that brands only have a limited time period in which they can publish their apology. They can either be too early (and possibly make another mistake in a hurry) or too late when the news of their failure has already been replaced by other news. It is best if brands take matters in their own hands before many celebrities and other individuals have been involved in pointing out the wrongdoing.

Tone and organization of the apology

‘Where is the apology published’ and ‘how is it phrased’ are some of the main questions branding people should be asking themselves. Depending on what the mistake was, brands should take a suitable approach to responding to criticism. For example, if a brand’s ad that was initially placed on social networking sites, was in the wrong, then the brand may respond through their social media. If the scandal was on a deeper company-level, then maybe the CEO may have to get involved. (as in the 2015 scandal, the VW CEO resigned over the emissions scandal) It is important, however, not to sound condescending towards those affected by the brand’s mistake. In 2017, following the data breach to millions of users of Equinox and Yahoo, CEOs stated that the social security number is not that private and useful. If that does not sound condescending towards customers, I don’t know what does. The public would rather see an honest apology than one that positions the brand as the one in power. As we have been witness to, virality is quite a normal and daily phenomenon. Thus, the consumers should continue seeing themselves as those in power.

Passive vs. active apologies

Some brands, as mentioned above, consider that just by stating they “missing the mark” is enough to satisfy the public’s rage with the mistake in their marketing campaign. However, such a passive apology would never be accepted in human-to-human interaction. Why should it be accepted for a brand-to-consumer interaction then? Consumers want to see brands converse with them which implies holding brands up to the human standard. A brand would only be praised if they decide to take action following their wrongdoing. Depending on the scope and theme of the latter, brands may for instance be obligated to distribute free products, develop a different creative campaign to apologize to those hurt by the brand’s mistake or even take action in the form of discharging responsible employees. The action should be thought through and upon the discretion of the brand depending on what their target markets would find reasonable. For instance, in this 2017 tweet McDonalds promises to take action in fixing the limited quantities of their new Szechuan Sauce

In conclusion…

Branding is not a simple job. It may require one to be creative in order to gain competitive advantage, but also be able to take responsibility of actions in times of crisis. Thus, brands should carefully check all of their output as it may enrage the public and even impair the brand’s reputation. Moreover, we as consumers have the responsibility to keep brands up to par in order to increase their integrity levels.

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