advertisement
advertisement

Why it’s so hard for brands to say, We’re sorry

In a world of empty brand apologies, Skittles apologizes to 130,880 unhappy customers.

Why it’s so hard for brands to say, We’re sorry
[Source Images: Carol Yepes/Getty]

For a certain species of candy aficionado, 2013 is a year that lives in infamy. Until then, the flavor combination inside every bag of Skittles consisted of strawberry, lemon, grape, orange, and lime—since the candy first hit North American shores in 1979. But nine years ago, the brand decided to abandon this lineup and chase taste-trend waterfalls, turning its green candy pellet into a supposedly more modern, green apple flavor.

advertisement
advertisement

To hardcore Skittleheads, this was messing with confection perfection, and it was an aggression that would not stand. Some would go so far as to give up their favorite candy until this act of flavor treason was corrected. Others decided to take their complaints to social media. More than 130,000 of them. Over time, the brand realized its mistake and last year even launched a limited-edition bag of all-lime Skittles. By the end of 2021, though, it was clear that Skittles was ready to reverse its decision and bring lime back.

And while actions can be a form of apology, sometimes the only good apology is an actual apology. So, this week, Skittles livestreamed a 35-minute press conference in which it began to individually apologize to all 130,880 people who complained about lime’s removal from the classic Skittles bag. The brand vows to personally apologize to each and every one, across video, social, or even on its Times Square billboard in New York City.

We live in a new world of corporate brand transparency. Or at least the illusion of it. What I mean by that is, a brand is no longer simply a construct of the advertising and marketing that a company puts out into the world, but everything that the company does. And everything that company does is no longer part of behind-the-scenes machinations, but conducted in public. Discreetly funding right-wing extremists? People will know. Supply chain not as sustainable as you claim? People will know. Somehow think higher gas prices will help you cut wages? As Applebee’s found out this week, people will know. 

advertisement
advertisement

In a world like this, brand blunders are going to be inevitable; a lot of them, in fact. And with such foul-ups come the need—and obligation—to apologize. Even with our short attention spans, we can remember Disney apologizing for being too silent on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Applebee’s apologizing for its ad airing on CNN as Ukraine was being bombed on live TV, Spotify apologizing for Joe Rogan’s language lapses, Netflix sort of apologizing for Dave Chappelle, and on and on. More brand missteps are visible, and so the demand for corporate apologies has never been higher.

And yet, even as both apologies and the demand for them have grown, our trust in the sincerity of these mea culpas may have actually decreased. 

Psychology professor Karina Schumann runs the Conflict Resolution Lab at the University of Pittsburgh and told the New York Times last month that we’re living in an age of accountability, with increased calls for transparency, and an increase in public power to demand a response. But that expectation, she says, has raised the bar for what is considered sincere—and can actually dilute the impact of these apologies. This concept is called normative dilution, which revolves around the idea that our increasing demands for apologies can actually devalue their impact and worth. 

advertisement

Despite potential apology fatigue, owning up to a mistake, apologizing openly, and moving to fix it with action is always the right move. According to 2017 research by the ethics consultancy firm LRN, a genuine apology can help your overall business and bottom line. As LRN’s Michael Eichenwald wrote in The Hill: “Companies whose senior managers do not properly apologize are six times more likely to have unsatisfied customers, five times more likely to see their market share stagnate, nine times more likely to struggle to adapt to change, and eight times more likely to not be recognized as a real innovator. . . . [And] employees of companies in which leaders do not properly apologize are nine times more likely to be uninspired to do their best work, nine times more likely to reject or overlook good ideas, and five times more likely to observe misconduct in their organization.” A 2022 study from Forrester found that 41% of consumers would return to a brand that concedes to making a mistake and apologizes for it.

Of course, some brands will continue to try the opposite approach. The Washington Post reported this week that Facebook had used a Republican PR firm to launch a wide-ranging smear campaign against TikTok, which included promoting rumors across its own platform and planting stories in local news outlets that TikTok appeared to be a threat to kids and society. Obviously, corporate cloak-and-dagger operations of this sort not only erode the public’s trust in Meta/Facebook’s brand, but also in the media institutions duped by these rumors. As of yet, no apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing appears to be imminent from Meta.

How a company or brand reacts to getting it wrong can tell you a lot about what it’s doing right. As silly as it seems, there’s a lesson here from Skittles. Branded apologies have become so ingrained in the culture that the candy brand is able to transform an ad into a commentary on the state of corporate accountability and our increased cynicism over its sincerity.

advertisement

At the same time, it made it all funny to watch, too. Colin Selikow, executive creative director at Skittles’s ad agency DDB Chicago, told Muse by Clio that while looking for inspiration in corporate apologies, they all seemed pretty hollow, generic, and gave the impression brands were being forced to do it. “We took the exact opposite approach,” said Selikow. “Not only did we make ours insanely personal by literally apologizing to each of the 130,880 persons who complained, we also proudly surfaced all that online anger toward Skittles, since it actually showed the passion people had for lime.”

Apology accepted.

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

More