When things go wrong: brand apologies

I’ve just had this very apologetic email from Innocent Drinks:

Innocent’s tone of voice is much-envied and much-imitated by other brands, and yet it’s incredibly rare to see a brand apologise when something’s gone wrong. I’ve seen countless mistakes put down to ‘computer error’ (what a cop-out) or ‘supplier error’ (nice buck-passing) when the brand could just say sorry and put it right.

So if everyone wants Innocent’s tone of voice, why don’t more brands tell the truth and just say ‘we’re sorry’?

When I worked on the O2 account, one of my projects was a leaving card for people quitting the network. On the front, it says ‘Sorry to hear you’re leaving’. Sometime after that started being posted out to approximately 800 people a month, someone decided that saying sorry was a bad move, and that it would have to be scrapped (I don’t know if it was – I don’t work there anymore). How ridiculous. That particular ‘sorry’ wasn’t even a ‘we’re in the wrong’ kind of sorry, it was ‘sorry’ in the sense of ‘we’re sad’. What’s wrong with that?

One brand that’s notable for their prompt, detailed apologies is Transport for London, who run the London Underground. Whenever there’s been a disruption or delay, a printed apology is put up in the relevant stations within 24 hours. It explains what the problem was and says they’re sorry:

Picture from Annie Mole’s Flickr stream

OK, so ‘please accept my apologies’ isn’t exactly grovelling, but it’s a good deal better than not saying it at all. And 9 times out of 10, it seems the problem that caused the delay wasn’t even TfL’s fault. Clearly no-one thinks they’re weak for their apologies, so why don’t we see more brands putting their hands up? And people, for that matter. Come on, let’s all say we’re sorry.

You first.

6 thoughts on “When things go wrong: brand apologies

  1. Tom Albrighton says:

    I’m sorry this post was so good and easy to read.

    The Innocent tone works great as long as everything’s hunky dory. I’m not sure it would cut it if they had to apologise for something serious, like product contamination. In this case they’re only apologising for something very minor, so they can use it as an opportunity to roll out ‘that’ tone yet again.

    It’s good to say sorry, but when you get right down to it, a company or brand apologising is a manipulative move. It’s good that people do it, but still. You’re hoping that people will like you more, or looking for a point of differentiation; if there were no reputational ROI, you wouldn’t be doing it. (Maybe that’s true of people as well.) And a company or brand can’t really be sorry, as audiences must surely know or intuit when they read these apologies. Who’s actually talking when you get an email from ‘Innocent’, and what is the apology worth if anonymised in this way?

    I think the London Transport one is the best example, because they have a monopoly. People have no choice but to suffer the Northern Line, but they still went to the trouble of apologising. And it’s from a real person.

  2. Joe says:

    Hi Tom,

    My name is Joe, and I work for innocent. I wrote the email because I made the mistake. I feel pretty stupid but it seemed the right thing to do. I am also very much real.

    Real stupid, in this case.



  3. Gill Perkins says:

    Great post Holly – though it’s sad that this sort of brand communication is so unusual it screams “blog post” at us.

    I recently had a great communication from Hotel Chocolate, which was sent to all its members. Some hadn’t received a pre-Christmas selection box and so everyone got an apology and £5 voucher, with wording that went something like: “Some of our members have contacted us to say their selection didn’t arrive in time for Christmas. For every person that has contacted us, we know there are lots that haven’t. We don’t know if you received your selection box or not, but as an apology to everyone, please use this £5 voucher the next time you shop with us…” And it was signed by the MD.

    Tom’s right that the true test of an apologetic brand is when things go truly, badly wrong, but in the meantime, brands should swallow their pride and ‘fess up more often.

  4. Tom says:

    Yo Holly

    it’s negativity too. Even though, when used correctly, it can be incredibly powerful. Because when used properly, it’s not really negativity, but honesty. Sometimes life is hard, sometimes things go south. There is nothing wrong getting hold of these concepts and using them. But I guess the thought is, ‘why take the risk?’

  5. copybot says:

    Joe – thanks for dropping in to comment, it’s great that Innocent is so responsive to discussions like this one.

    Gill – I can see how the £5 voucher seemed like a kind gesture, but if it’s only off your next spend at Hotel Chocolat, isn’t it kind of self-serving? £5 is the minimum they could reasonably offer, and it forces you to place an order with them if you want to use it. I don’t know, just seems a bit pants to me.

  6. Carl Howarth says:

    Hi Holly,

    I love the fact that the apology from Innocent is so nicely worded (in other words – not written by the legal department) and I also agree with Tom and Gill thought; it would be nice if they apologised for all of their mistakes.

    Unfortunately most of the time the decision on whether to make an apology and who it is from is not the company’s choice to make. This rule applies even more so when the issue is of a more serious nature. We now live in a world where money rules and people will take legal action against anyone and everyone to get it. When large companies like Innocent agree insurance policies there will be clauses within the agreement that state that the company being insured must not do or say anything that may indicate responsibility. By admitting responsibility you are taking the issue away from the insurers (and in many cases the insurance company will refuse to work your case). If you read your car insurance policy, there will be a clause in there that states that you must not take responsibility for any accident no matter how obvious it is that you caused it.

    It was nice of Joe to put his comment on the blog. I am presuming that the original apology shown is signed anonymously because Joe is not allowed to take personal responsibility for any mistake he makes when representing the company.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s