Branding & Messaging 101: Can “We’re Sorry” Ever Be a Good Marketing Strategy?

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Branding & Messaging 101

Businesses admitting their failures or mistakes doesn’t seem like it would make for a sound marketing strategy, yet we’re seeing more and more companies use this approach. Consider the following:

Should more businesses consider using “We’re Sorry” as a marketing strategy? Like everything else in life, there’s no one size fits all answer. It depends on many factors, the most important one being this: does your company have something it’s truly sorry about? Even if you answer yes, make sure you carefully consider the following points before embarking on a “forgiveness quest.”

1. You must launch a genuine apology. The apology shouldn’t be a gimmick. If your company is indeed apologizing for something, it shouldn’t pass the buck or assign blame to anyone else. People can be extremely forgiving when they hear a person or entity acknowledge wrongdoing. Saying something like, “We were wrong, we’re sorry, and here’s how we’re going to fix it” will play much better than saying, “Mistakes were made” or “We’re sorry people found our campaign to be offensive.” See the difference? The first example takes ownership. The second and third examples are vague and feel like false apologies. Be genuinely sorry or don’t issue an apology at all.

Domino’s marketing transformation involved acknowledging and “owning” all of the negative feedback it had been receiving about its product. According to this USA Today article, “In a 2009 survey of consumer taste preferences among national chains by research firm Brand Keys, Domino’s was last — tied with Chuck E. Cheese’s.” The company didn’t make excuses. Instead, Domino’s decided it could and would do better, and it let customers know it was intent on doing just that. (Read more about Domino’s transformation in this case study we wrote.)

2. Your company must be willing to make real, memorable changes. You shouldn’t issue an apology and then go on with business as usual. It’s important to note, however, that making significant changes to your product or service (or the way you do business) will likely require significant investments of time, marketing, and money. Any business that’s thinking of using “I’m sorry” as part of a long-term strategy should bear this in mind.

3. You’ll need to continue listening to feedback. Don’t expect everyone to instantly feel all warm and fuzzy about your company or product again. Even if you genuinely ask for forgiveness and show real change, some people will miss it, not care, or feel it’s not enough. Listen to your critics’ feedback and make sure you have a strategy for addressing ongoing criticism.

4. You must prep everyone in your organization. It’s important to have everyone in your company on board with the “mea culpa” strategy. The first step is educating employees on the strategy and your reasons for implementing it. Listen to employees’ questions and concerns. Provide them with regular updates and talking points as well.

5. You’ll need a process for handling media inquiries. Any major shift in messaging, even for small- and medium-sized businesses, could draw attention from reporters. A messaging shift, especially one that involves a forgiveness quest, is also a good hook for the press. Whether you issue a press release or reporters contact you on their own, make sure you have a plan for dealing with their questions. A smart first step would be to create a media kit that includes all the basics about your company but that also includes information related to the new campaign.

What do you think? Does a mea culpa make a good long-term marketing strategy? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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