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When Your Brand Stumbles

As Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg headed to Capitol Hill for his two days of ritual public humiliation over the 737 Max, his company took out full-page ads in several major newspapers. We’ll leave it to others to dissect the executive’s performance and the reaction of his brand, but the situation is a useful reminder that at some point every organization will face an angry, frustrated or just disappointed audience.

Obviously, we can’t run around like a bunch of cartoon characters offering a heartfelt apology for every unfortunate circumstance. But when our own action or inaction clearly lead to an unpleasant outcome, an effective apology can help you (a neighbor, a spouse, an anthropomorphized brand) regain trust.

Customers in general are open to forgiving a brand that takes responsibility and expresses regret for its own actions or failures—and it certainly beats blaming somebody else on this score. However, it’s only effective when done properly. These are polite norms that we all kinda, sorta know intuitively, but behavioral scientists Steven Martin and Joseph Marks codified them for us in their book Messengers. They state that an effective apology:

  1. Must be delivered quickly;
  2. Must be expressed sincerely; and
  3. Must demonstrate a commitment to change.

Most of the public apologies we encounter these days fall down on at least one of these criteria. So, where do these less timely, insincere or noncommittal apologies go wrong? Often, it’s a matter of completeness. For example, the apologies lack any tangible or expressed commitment to change or to prevent the offense from happening again.

More often, the person apologizing allows his or her personal pride to get between the expression and the whole point of the exercise. They know they need to apologize, but they don’t want to actually take any blame for anything personally. The result is usually some sort of excuse or qualified apology, which is to say, not an apology at all.

  • I am sorry if my words were misunderstood.
  • I apologize to anyone who may have been offended.
  • I didn’t know you were going in there when I left my shoes in the middle of the room.

That sort of thing.

Knowing when and how to offer an apology can be the difference between regaining the trust of your customers and the public, or turning disappointment into rage.

Or sleeping on the couch, for that matter.