question of the week

Sorry Isn't Always The Hardest Word: When Should Brands Apologise?

With a number of brands issuing public apologies, are consumers sometimes overly sensitive and are brands sometimes not sensitive enough?

By Olivia Atkns

When Balenciaga admitted "grievous errors" (and rightly so) after backlash to campaigns that included images of children holding BDSM teddies, it was not hard to see that the public outrage was swift and brutal, while Balenciaga’s was slow and somewhat pitiful.

But that was not the only brand to feel the wrath of consumers recently. A few weeks ago Tampax had to apologise for a now-deleted "offensive" tweet quoting a popular internet phrase. KFC had to apologise after sending a promotional message to customers in Germany, urging them to commemorate Kristallnacht with cheesy chicken. Waitrose was forced to say sorry after being criticised by skin cancer patients and a charity for its Christmas ad showing farmers comparing sun tans.

While some brands have rightly retracted campaigns and admitted wrong for their accidentally automated crassly offensive campaigns, perhaps it's also time to explore if consumers are sometimes being overly sensitive? Or are brands just being too provocative (and sometimes thoughtlessly offensive) with their marketing messages?

We spoke to strategists to find out how brands can read the room better and what checks and balances can be put in place to make sure campaigns resonate with audiences?

Matthew Waksman,head of strategy, Advertising, Ogilvy UK

If we’ve learned anything from 2022, it’s that strategists need to be much more concerned about the people their brands are associating with. People whose voices they cannot control. The biggest brand retraction of recent months was Adidas, who found themselves in bed with an ambassador, Kanye, who incited violence against Jews to his millions of followers, at a time when antisemitic incidents are at an all-time high. At least they dropped him before he went on to commend Hitler and deny the holocaust.

Strategists need to draw a distinction between the potentially-problematic-on-twitter and the big-fucking-problems and take an educated call. The last thing we need is strategists becoming provocation police at a time when brands are finding it harder than ever before to cut through. But we do need strategists to be much more upstream with CMOs to help their brands avoid making major missteps with serious societal consequences.

Suzanne Barker, strategy partner, AMV BBDO

In the lead up to Christmas, plus the World Cup, you would have thought there would be a lot of great work from brands. Instead, we’re mostly cringing at their mistakes and wondering “how did that happen?” or “who approved that?”

Three rules that strategists can help champion: (1) Use common sense. For Balenciaga, Tampax, and KFC, those mistakes were glaringly obvious. If you’re looking at work and it feels like it might be culturally insensitive, it most definitely is. Kill the work quickly (2) Don’t roll with the punches. Often creative work gets shared from one person to the next or up the chain with clients. Things can snowball quite quickly in advertising. If you’re still questioning something that others think is great, say something. It might not be the popular opinion, but it’s probably the right one. (3) Be across as much as you can. Sometimes, it is not always the central creative thought that is wrong, it is how an idea can get amplified on Twitter, or it is a bad call on casting…keep the team tight and always hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Mark Sng, partner & chief strategy officer, Pablo

Such examples remind us that advertising does not exist in a vacuum. Having a clear sense of the conversations taking place in culture not only leads to fewer apologies; it leads to much more effective work. We have a saying at Pablo: “surfing, not splashing”. It’s the belief that we can only make a relatively small splash with our limited marketing resources; but if we ‘surf’ on a conversation already taking place (or kick against it, hijack it or subvert it), we can make much noisier and therefore more effective work.

But there has to be sensitivity applied to such an approach. Ensuring the customer is a loud voice in the strategic and creative development process is, of course, key. But it’s also rather handy to have an agency team with a diversity of perspectives and lived experience. We’ve also found it very useful to extend that team with The Diversity Standards Collective; a wonderful and recommended resource.

All of these measures are undertaken to create more empathetic, resonant and powerful work - with the added benefit of potentially avoiding putting one’s foot in it.

However, being afraid to take a stance or to provoke a response - that is where our idea of risk is upside down. It’s far riskier for a brand to fade into obscurity than to ruffle a few feathers with work that seeks (in a responsible and well meaning way) to garner a reaction.

Asad Shaykh, head of strategy, Grey London

As strategists, we cannot pre-empt disasters, but we can try to mitigate them.

The consumer appetite is expanding at the speed of the internet, making it a fantastically terrifying market. All we can do is to (1) stay informed and (2) react quickly, when similar cultural challenges arise. It is also our job to push cultural boundaries to generate attention, but never the wrong ones. Apologies due if we do.

What Waitrose did was a mishap. What Balenciaga did was misdemeanour. The difference is intention. Strategists can always provide guidance on intention, but mistakes can and will be made. It’s how you react to them, is a whole new strategy.

Self-censorship can be dangerous for creativity, our lifeblood. What we should fear is not public apologies, but cultural stagnation.


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