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When should a brand apologise?

We ask experts if an apology is required even in situations when a brand has been targeted by trolls for taking a position on an issue

We often see brands offering apology every time someone’s sentiments have been hurt or when there is an outrage over an ad, communication or content.

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Many a time, netizens have raised voices against brand communication that discriminate or hurt someone. But we have also seen brands getting trolled and bullied on the web for taking a stand on issues that affect the society.

Brands are expected to be honest and true to consumers. But is an apology always necessary?

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According to experts, a brand must apologise if a mistake is genuine and they must acknowledge it.

Sridhar Ramanujam

Sridhar Ramanujam, Founder and CEO, Brand-comm, said brands need to understand that everybody can see everything today, unlike earlier when brands only had to worry about the target audience and consumers. He said today one can target a brand simply because they don’t like it.

“You can also get many people to write for and against your brand. The challenge today lies in being creative because how do you draw the line? Even if the agency thinks something can be creative, the brand head must eventually take a stand and decide,” Ramanujam said.

Harish Bijoor

According to Harish Bijoor Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults, an apology is always necessary. “Even if you have hurt a fraction of your audience, an apology is necessary. Also, an apology makes a brand human. A brand must possess humility to live with humans. Apologise—never mind how many you have offended. It makes you real and alive. As alive as all those you have hurt.”

Lloyd Mathias

On the other hand, Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist and Angel Investor, suggests it is important for companies and brands to respect public sentiment. He said after all, a brand and a company exist within a larger community and they do need to reflect the values of users and the larger society they operate in. “I think it is perfectly okay for brands to make mistakes and hence apologise. As long as the mistake is genuine and the intention is honourable, most consumers will accept it positively,” he said. 

“In an increasingly polarised atmosphere, brands should be more circumspect but not shy away from doing what is right. They need to be conscious of the fact that social media allows consumers to react and share their views, so they need to fully analyse the possible reactions but in no way should they hold back from doing the right thing,” Mathias stated.

Samit Sinha

Samit Sinha, Managing Partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, said that if as a strong brand you stand up for something, you also stand up against something and that cannot make an entire population happy. “If you get some backlash because you are standing for something there is no need to apologise. The people who are reacting negatively will in any case never be your customer so they don't matter. However, if, based on what you stand for, you have made an error in judgement then I think an honest, unequivocal apology is what you must do because that is what will continue to create a strong bond with your consumers. This is as much true for brands as it is for life,” he stated.

Citing similar thoughts, Karan Kumar, Senior Vice-President and Chief Marketing Officer, DLF, said when a brand takes a certain position, you should always anticipate that certain people who may or may not be your consumers will be against it. He said not everybody will agree with what you say. But if you feel what you are standing up for is born out of your deep conviction and belief system as a brand, you should be ready to face opposition also and should not apologise.

“You can’t be naive enough to think that if you are taking a position, 100% of the population will be in your support. So you either don’t take a position if you don’t want to face controversy. Just taking a position one day and apologising or backtracking the next day does not show your brand in a very good light, it just shows that you haven't taken that position out of conviction. This is unfortunate for the brand's image. In which case, even those people who support that position will feel let down,” he added.

Experts say brand apology must be genuine and honest. Brands that have apologised to the public in the past have been accused of offering ‘tone-deaf’ and ‘defensive’ apologies.

According to Ramanujam, brands don’t think about any communication going wrong and don’t have a crisis management plan in place, which is why they end up pulling out the communication. “Even if you are writing an apology, you should ask—is there a better way of saying this? Brands are sounding defensive just to get out of the situation rather than getting to the bottom of it,” he said.

An apology is not the time to be clever, it should be sincere. People can make out if your apology is conditional, which it should not be, said Sinha.

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