A series of corporate reputation scandals is shining light on an emerging subsection of branding: apology marketing. Crisis communication is a well-established field, of course. But until now, “apologies” are typically expressed in prose: CEO statements, press releases, social media posts. Recently, within a single NBA playoff game, three embroiled companies – Wells Fargo, Uber and Facebook – previewed what may be the future of crisis management.

Expensive, prime-time TV commercials told their stories. But what’s more striking than the medium is the message; the ads used the brand’s reputation crises to promote rather than just defend. The problem, writes Jeff Beer in Fast Company, is that these brands haven’t yet mastered the art of honest, convincing apology marketing.

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The Hallmarks of Crisis Communication Haven’t Changed

Tell the Right Story

Ranking the three commercials on a scale ranging from “Please forgive us” to “Sorry, not sorry,” Beer notes that none reached the former. In fact, Facebook was square in the “Sorry, not sorry” camp, focusing on how fake news and the Cambridge Analytica data hacking scandal interrupted what was a wonderful narrative about a social platform improving lives. Uber’s ad featured its new CEO discussing his plans for change, implicitly laying blame squarely at the feet of his predecessor. Wells Fargo, on the other hand, came closest to a real admission of wrongdoing, but perhaps not close enough.

Wells Fargo’s commercial, which reflected on the bank’s origins in the Gold Rush and long history of trust before its recent troubles, gave the sense that the sources of controversy – e.g., employees creating accounts for and issuing credit cards to customers without consent – were PR setbacks at odds with its core corporate culture. In Beer’s (sarcastic) words, “This was just a blip, trust our cowboy past, not the multiple fraud scandals.” Though the commercial touted a specific policy of eliminating the incentives for employees to create fake accounts, there was no acknowledgement of cultural failure and the need for a different ethos. And yet, a toxic corporate culture was at the heart of popular media coverage of the Wells Fargo scandals. A proper apology, delivered via any channel, recognizes this fact. The story, after all, isn’t one of temporary setback but of the need for change.

Say You’re Sorry… And Act Like You Mean It

Perhaps Wells Fargo, Uber and Facebook are sincere in their desire to spur change. These recent ads are a step, albeit a baby one, in that direction. But here’s the moral of my story: apology marketing is here to stay. Crisis communication will increasingly intertwine with advertising and brand strategy. CEOs will no longer rely on an apologetic statement, nor will they be allowed to quietly resign and move onto their next gig, allowing the company to continue on its merry way. These three commercials make it clear that companies haven’t fully grasped these facts. Pay attention to how they present themselves in marketing and other forms of communication going forward. We’ll see if they’ve learned how to salvage or sink their tainted brands.

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Brian Sherry sees the “story” in everything. As a content writer and strategist with Stern Strategy Group, he specializes in shaping complex ideas into compelling stories about brands and individual thought leaders. He works with a variety of clients in the financial services, healthcare/biotech, business consulting, technology, non-profit and thought leadership fields.