‘The explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico never should have happened, and I am deeply sorry that they did.‘ In 2010, following BP’s infamous oil spill, Tony Hayward, the chief executive, apologised in front of the United States House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee. In his opening line Hayward displayed feelings of Recognition, Responsibility, and Remorse: three of the five Rs introduced in John Kador’s Effective Apology (2009). The other two (Restitution and Repetition) were mentioned during the course of the hearing.
In 2018 Mark Zuckerberg’s apology (following the Cambridge Analytica scandal) adopted a similar structure. Addressing the misuse of personal data, the Facebook CEO wrote: ‘We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. (…) But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it.’ Although related to different events these statements share a purpose: regaining consumer trust. Some might say they were successful. Others believe they did more harm than good. Yet they accomplished at least one thing.
Hayward and Zuckerberg created the blueprint for one of today’s most favoured advertising tactics, known as apology marketing.
‘We are sorry.’ ‘We have failed.’ ‘We can do better.’ If you’re on social media, you have likely encountered similar statements. Brands are apologising for everything, everywhere, all at once. And the more widespread these displays of remorse become, the less genuine they seem to be. This leads us to question: what is driving public apologies?
If truth is not the primary motivator, engagement might be
There is a reason why these statements are often shared on social media. If all publicity is good publicity then, in today’s digital landscape, that translates into likes, comments, and shares. After Balenciaga’s child abuse scandal last November, the hashtag #cancelBalenciaga quickly trended on Twitter and TikTok. Google searches of the brand during the first week of the backlash reached an all-time high, with ‘Balenciaga child ad‘ and ‘Balenciaga scandal‘ being the most searched terms.
Consumer demand drives the rise of apology marketing
As the general audience becomes more aware of its influence, companies are compelled to match their words with actions. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, numerous brands took a stand against racism on social media. Like Everlane, a fashion brand known for its commitment to sustainability. However, it did not take long for former employees to accuse the company of discriminatory behaviour, leading to an admission of guilt. ‘We believe that through transparency comes accountability, and in order to enact change we need to better understand the problem‘, the company posted on its Instagram stories.
In today’s cancel culture not all public apologies stem from honesty. Some are reactive, aiming to minimize the consequences of a current scandal, while others are proactive, seeking to control the narrative, and reaffirm relevance. Nevertheless, the popularity of apology marketing unintentionally fosters a culture of transparency.
As more companies take responsibility for their mistakes, consumers and lawmakers increase their scrutiny. Public apologies are viewed through a sceptical lens, leaving no room for hypocrisy.
If a company wants to successfully regain its audience’s trust, a mere statement of recognition, responsibility, remorse, restitution, repetition will not suffice. Sincerity is required, or else there may be a need to apologize for a poorly executed apology in the first place.
Featured image: Jan-Rune Smenes Reite / Pexels