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The Public Apology Letter: 6 Brands That Nailed It

The Public Apology Letter: 6 Brands That Nailed It

There are some people who just refuse to sincerely apologize.
My favorite example of this phenomenon is taken from a U.S.
television franchise called “The Real Housewives,” in which the
cast members have become notorious for doling out feigned
apologies. Instead of simply apologizing for hurting someone’s
feelings, for example, it’s more common for them to say
something like, “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt.”

That, my friends, is not how you say, “Sorry.”

I get it — it’s difficult to admit when you’re wrong. There’s
been so much conflicting data around the word “sorry.” While
it’s something that most parents of
young children believe should be taught
there have also been claims that apologizing makes a person
look weak. In fact, some companies’ stock prices have fallen
following an apology, depending on
how it was delivered
[2]. There are
even browser
[3] to prevent
the use of apologetic language in emails.

But to little old me, a sincere apology goes a long way. When I
sense genuine remorse, it means a lot to me — perhaps because
it’s so rare, at least in my experience. Combined with my nerdy
affection for all things marketing, that sentiment applies to
brand apologies, too. It’s not so much that I think, “Wow, that
means a lot to me,” but more like, “Wow, that company really
nailed saying, ‘Sorry.'”

So, who’s done it best? We rounded up some of our favorite
brand apologies to inspire you next time you make a mistake —
and need to admit your wrongdoing.

But First, Here’s What Not to Do

When I was in business school and searching for an internship,
a friend in a creative industry told me to try out a website
that was created, supposedly, for people with my skills and
background. But when I used the platform to create a profile
and upload my credentials, I was turned away with no
explanation. A few days later, I received the following email:

Let’s outline what this apology is lacking:

  • Specificity. The message notes that I was
    turned away — but it doesn’t explain why. When you’ve made a
    mistake, acknowledge it in full, explaining exactly where you
    went wrong and why.
  • Remorse. While the email opens with some
    apology text, that accounts for a minute portion of the
    email. The majority of the copy is asking me to do something
    on behalf of the company that wronged me. Think about it —
    if you immediately ask someone to do you a favor after you
    apologize for a mistake, how genuinely remorseful will you
    sound? Not very.
  • Next steps. When you’ve made a mistake,
    people want to be sure of two things:
    1. That you’re truly sorry for your wrongdoing.
    2. That it’s not going to happen again.

The above email does neither of those things, as per the
“remorse point.” It’s also lacking any accountable language to
address what it’s going to do to prevent this issue from taking
place again, using non-committal language like “I hope.” And if
you’re not sure what to do to make it right — ask.

We chose the examples below due to their inclusion of all of
these factors and, in some cases, even more.

6 Brands That Brilliantly Apologized

1) Apple

Back in 2015, U.S. pop artist Taylor Swift announced a very
public boycott of
Apple Music
[4]. That was
due to the service offering a one-month free trial of its
streaming feature — but not paying artists for any of their
music that was played during the free period.

To right the situation, Apple enlisted the help of its SVP of
Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, who went about a
slightly unusual way of admitting to the brand’s wrongdoing —
via Twitter.

Not long after this unconventional apology was issued, Swift
starred in an Apple commercial, which led some to speculate that
the entire incident was an orchestrated publicity
[9]. That said,
it does illustrate some positive points of how big-name brands
can apologize. With two tweets, Apple sent the message, “We
hear your grievances, we get it, and here’s what we’re going to
do about it.”

2) ZocDoc

It seems like you can use the internet to procure anything
these days. From buying specialty products to scheduling
meetings, so much can be accomplished and taken care of online.

ZocDoc is one such provider of these services, and provides a
platform that connects users with doctors for almost every
speciaity in their respective areas. There’s just one problem
— sometimes, the doctors don’t accurately update their
schedules within ZocDoc, causing users to make appointments for
times that aren’t actually available, leading to their
subsequent cancellation.

But ZocDoc isn’t one to say, “Not our fault, not our problem.”
Instead, it’s constantly striving to gain and use customer
feedback to enhance the user experience, like it does with this

Here’s the thing — ZocDoc wasn’t really the one responsible
for the cancellation. The doctor’s office was, but despite
that, it still negatively impacts the user experience, which
ZocDoc acknowledged and offered to make right, by not only
asking what went wrong, but offering a gift in exchange for the

3) Netflix

When Netflix was looking to transition from DVD delivery to a
streaming service (yes, we almost forgot about that, too), it
had a few missteps along the way.

At first, the company built a system in which its streaming and
DVD delivery services would become different entities with
separate billing agreements. Before, members had the option of
subscribing to both for $10 per month. But the split meant
a 60% price
[10] for
current members who wanted both — the new system’s fees were
$8 each month solely for the DVD service, plus another $8 per
month for streaming. What’s worse, the company didn’t really
provide a clear explanation.

But CEO Reed Hastings wanted to shed light on the situation,
and did so in an open letter on the company’s blog[11]. He
explained why the changes came to be, and noted that Netflix
was “done” with pricing changes. But there was a problem — the
company wasn’t doing anything to reverse the
issue affecting most customers, which was the separation
of subscriptions. People enjoyed having the option of signing
up for multiple services with one bill. But Hastings didn’t fix
that. Instead, he noted that the DVD service would not only
remain separate, but would be renamed Qwikster.

Source: Netflix[12]

Qwikster was short-lived[13], to
say the least. Three weeks later, Hastings issued yet another
[14]. This
time, he kept it short and sweet, and essentially sent the
message, “Okay, you’re right. Having two billing systems was a
bad idea, and we’re doing away with that.” Netflix did suffer
some initial damage, with a loss of
800,000 members and a falling stock price
However, the brand has since recovered and currently enjoys

4) Naked Wines

I’ve discovered a pattern to my email-unsubscribing behavior.
It typically happens when I’m generally stressed out or
overwhelmed, and might snap if I get just one more notification
on my phone. The easy answer, of course, would be to turn off
my notifications. Instead, I angrily unsubscribe from the
well-meaning brand’s newsletters, for which I happily signed
up, but didn’t really engage with.

In my case, at least, it’s not the brand’s fault. So if that
company sent me a witty, thoughtful email in response to my
cancelled subscription, asking what went wrong and what could
be done to fix it, I might happily oblige — after I calmed
down, of course. And that’s exactly what Naked Wines did
with the apologetic email below:

Source: Econsultancy[17]

The company openly leads with “sorry,” and acknowledges that
the canceled subscription was likely due to something it did.
So it asked, “What was it? Let us know, so we can fix it.”

5) Toronto Maple Leafs

If there’s one thing that truly dedicated sports fan would be
happy to never hear again, it’s the phrase, “It’s just a game.”
And no one, it seems, understood that more than Lawrence M.
Tanenbaum — chairman of Maple Leaf Sports — after a
devastating loss by the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple
Leafs in 2012.

Source: National
Hockey League

As a somewhat diehard sports fan myself — go Red Sox — I can
understand the desire for accountability from a team’s front
office management after a bad season. And with this long,
apologetic letter, that’s exactly what Tanenbaum accomplished,
with the recognition of not only his team’s poor performance,
but also, a public commitment on behalf of ownership to improve

6) Airbnb

In December 2015, home-sharing platform Airbnb began to come
under fire for racial profiling and discrimination taking place
on its site. That month, Harvard researchers released a
[19], which
indicated that travelers with “distinctively African-American
names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical
guests with distinctively White names.” That data was only
compounded by reports on social
[20] from
travelers who experienced that discrimination first-hand, as
well as a lawsuit[21] over
such actions.

In monitoring the social media dialogue, it seems like the
issue isn’t quite completely resolved. However, Airbnb isn’t
trying to dodge it, and is actually quite proactively
addressing this (big) problem. It began with this email from
CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky:

Chesky addresses the fault of Airbnb early in the message,
acknowledging that the brand was far too slow to respond to the
issue of discrimination, and apologized for it. Since then, the
company has taken several actions to prevent and put an
end to it on the platform, which it outlined in a 32-page
[22] authored
by Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington
Legislative Office. The report documented an audit conducted to
evaluate where Airbnb was falling short on preventing
discrimination, and the resulting measures that would be put in
place. Since the report was released, the brand has very
publicly campaigned on a platform of inclusion, capped
with an ad that aired during the 2017 Super Bowl.

Of course, this series of events presents a much larger issue
that isn’t limited to Airbnb and does raise the question, “How
much can a corporation really do?” And while that is far from
an easy question to answer, Airbnb seems to be continuing to do
its part, and acknowledging its role within this landscape.

So, Next Time You Mess Up…

…you know what to do.

Granted, admitting when you’re wrong is still anything but a
simple task. And figuring out how you’re going to make it right
isn’t a process that can take place overnight. But one thing
you can do immediately is to admit your mistake. Ask for
feedback. Be transparent. And remember — “I’m sorry” can go a
long way.

How does your brand address mistakes? Let us know in the