The thorny issue of brand 'forgiveness'

In November 2016 The Campaign Against Antisemitism made a complaint against an East London cafe called Nincomsoup.

Saying sorry can do a brand the power of good, if handled correctly, argues Jo Allison
Saying sorry can do a brand the power of good, if handled correctly, argues Jo Allison

The cafe was selling a drink called ‘The Nutzy’, which was emblazoned with what looked like a swastika.
A social-media backlash ensued, and the cafe quickly issued an apology on its website but blamed a 'rogue employee.'

Forgiveness falls broadly within two schools of thought. The first is conditional forgiveness, based upon remorse and apology, where forgiveness is earned and deserved.

The second is inner reconciliation and has little to do with the offender and more to do with enabling forgiveness.

Academics at Harvard say it’s essential for businesses to show remorse and say sorry when they get things wrong.

They have devised an ‘organisational apology’ showing leaders how to do it properly.

The formula lays out core elements: remorse, commitment to change and speed. They cite Mark Zuckerberg as an exemplar of offering a meaningful apology.

When Facebook was caught out for using the platform to conduct psychological experiments on users in 2014, rather than defending or shirking responsibility, he admitted accountability and promised to make changes.

But there is a greater level of complexity here; research shows that some brands are more easily forgiven than others.

Consultancy firm Temkin Group found that the sectors most likely to receive public forgiveness include banks (surprisingly), supermarkets and online retailers.

A love of the cult brand means smaller businesses invite more empathy from customers than larger ones; after all, they have a more human face.

Research also reveals that the more power an individual has, the harder it is to be forgiven.

Large corporations are viewed the same way as bankers and politicians; they are perceived to have wealth, so people have little sympathy for them.

It’s why Southern Rail’s 37,986 Twitter apologies in 2016 fall on deaf ears – it’s well documented that the company is making millions in profits despite widespread misery for commuters.

For someone to feel sympathetic towards a brand – no matter how big or small – there must, at first, be a sense of connection and trust.

And considering that nearly two thirds of people claim they don’t buy from companies they don’t trust, and almost as many would criticise them to others, increased trust can lead to an increased bottom line.

In this light, fostering a greater culture of trust has become hugely important in generating positive feedback and word of mouth. And when an apology is required, sincerity can go a long way to preserving reputation.

Forgiveness is an uncomfortable proposition; it invites remorse, shame and vulnerability on the part of the apologiser. But equally, it can offer a renewed sense of energy and purpose.

With the current zeitgeist so centred on wellbeing, emotional currency and transparency, brands that can harness and practice the power of empathy, compassion and forgiveness may be able to turn the narrative around – from one of apathy, anger and disappointment in brands to sincerity, trust and loyalty.

It takes more than a simple ‘sorry’, but it’s worth a try.

Jo Allison is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8

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