Is It Too Late To Say Sorry

Sample this email subject line that global sports major, Adidas, sent to the participants of the Boston Marathon 2017, once they had completed the race. “Congratulations for having survived the Boston Marathon.” The internet has a field day regarding the perceived insensitivity of the usage of words just a few years from the horrors that affected men, women and children in April 2013.
What a few weeks it has been for some of the world’s most recognizable brands. Pepsico, United Airlines, Uber (where do we start?) and Snapchat have all been the source of some much publicized faux pas. They’ve then been lined up in front of the proverbial firing squad and seen their legacy tarnished leading to capital and brand erosion. What could they have done differently?
Before we embark on a deconstructing journey within the safe confines of hindsight, let us be clear that a brand apology has more variables associated with it. Equally important to note is that we are not trying to measure the intensity of person to person forgiveness versus one that is made by a brand. But millions of users, their collective anger combined with lightning fast communication mediums mean brands might as well decommission the traditional crisis playbook. Brands create various response teams and protocols to deal with errors and some hit the mark while others compound the problem. Maybe the real place to start comes much before.
Listen. If only brands were more attuned to the current state of affairs, they’d be able to predict reception for some of their marketing strategies. Case in point, Pepsi, made the cardinal sin of trying to jump onto the bandwagon of free speech and the right to have your voice heard. Well intentioned theoretically, can you imagine the backlash a homegrown brand like Rooh Afza would face if they released a similar ad except with the CRPF personnel and Kashmiri youth as participants? In a society already polarized by the rise of an unlikely and unpredictable President, the ad struck all the wrong chords. Not to mention the choice of celebrity who is part of a family derided by most, irrespective of your political lineage.
Worse yet, is to shirk responsibility of poor decisions and violent action. Enter United Airlines. If it wasn’t enough brand hara-kiri seeing gory images of a customer (whether he should have been allowed on board or not) being dragged across the aisle, the first response statement actually put the blame on the system and the passenger. This did not come from a staff spokesperson or a PR rep, but the CEO himself. It remains to be seen if ‘re-accommodate’ wins ‘Invented Jargon of the Year 2017’ but the letter backing United employees, most of whom were already embarrassed by the turn of events, was also in poor taste.
I hate to kick a brand when it is down, but having been a resident of the great city of Bangalore for the last 8 years, I haven’t been ‘locked up at home’ until Uber came along and improved our collective Happiness Index. And no, I do not own a motor vehicle. Brands leave themselves open to ridicule and the mercy of trolls by making statements of grandiose which alienate their customers. Have they made travel easier, safer and more convenient? No doubt, but shouldn’t you be letting your satisfied customers do your evangelizing for you? An apology made after generations make for a great Bollywood happily-ever-after ending but in the real world, it is best done immediately. And sincerely. Unfortunately, Uber seems to have the hand-brake on when it comes to rectifying its errors for a few months now.
For an app that made its mark by allowing users to send images which disappear in a few seconds, Snapchat seems to be doing the disappearing act from our mobile phones equally fast. Once again, the source of the problem has been the guy at the top. It must be the rarified air at multi-billion dollar IPOs that make decision making really tough. To insinuate (allegedly or not) we are ‘too poor’ to consider expansion is akin to digging your own grave. Users are uninstalling the app (seems to be in vogue these days), hackers are releasing private user data and poor Snapdeal is also facing the brunt for sounding a little too much like them. A sincere apology involves admittance of hurt caused to the ‘victims’, in this case, a nation of 1.2 billion people. Now whether the statement was actually made or not, Snapchat needs to seem accountable enough to make amends. Releasing India specific filters to placate an irate internet mob is certainly not the way. A brave CEO might even ditch the traditional route and embark on a charm offensive. A visit to India with a plan to make Indians an integral user base of his popular app in due course of time might not be such a bad idea.
Good communication is always a two way process. If you listen, chances are that you will be able to say the right things. The same applies to brands. Listen well to avoid blunders, quixotic or otherwise. And remember, acceptance is the first step towards salvation. To err is human, to forgive, divine. Or in the case of some big brands today – To err is self inflicted, to stop the trolls, futile.

CommunicationPersis Shah