‘Outrage capitalism’ and the unexpected benefits of not saying sorry to customers
Apologies for demonstrable failures are good and necessary. Apologies for hurt feelings are often highly risky. Sean O’Meara explains why.
Organisations apologise a lot nowadays. You’ve probably noticed. But they’re not apologising for the reasons you probably expect.
Organisations apologise when they fail (or at least when they’re seen to fail). And they fail in one of two ways; they either experience an operational failure or a culture failure. Operational failures are things like product recalls, flight delays or fried chicken shops running out of fried chicken - as we saw with KFC in 2018.
These sort of failures are quite easy to apologise for. You explain what went wrong, tell customers how you’re going to put it right, then ask for their forgiveness. KFC did this brilliantly after they ran out of chicken. And customers forgave them.
Cultural failures are not easy to apologise for. Things like offensive adverts, sexist marketing campaigns and accusations of workplace harassment are harder to define and almost impossible to apologise for properly. It’s significantly harder for an organisation to explain what went wrong when there’s a culture problem. Normally an organisation will trot out platitudes like “we missed the mark” or “we got it wrong.”
Some unlucky organisations even manage to fail both operationally and culturally at the same time, like United Airlines’ ‘re-accommodation scandal’, which started as an operational failure and ballooned into an almighty cultural failure.
Customer rights vs customer feelings
When an organisation experiences an operational failure, it’s because they infringed the rights of the consumer. During the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, Mark Zuckerberg’s first apology was more than 900 words. None of those words were ‘sorry’. He suspected that his organisation had breached consumer rights, but didn’t go as far as saying sorry. He didn’t think it was necessary.
When an organisation experiences a cultural failure, it’s because they infringed the feelings of the consumer. This is where traditional crisis management techniques fall short. Organisations and consumers know where they stand in relation to one another's rights and obligations. There is no legislating for hurt feelings, yet it’s an enormous source of customer contrition.
During the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, Mark Zuckerberg’s first apology was more than 900 words. None of those words were ‘sorry’.
And here’s one of the big problems myself and Professor Cooper identified in our book ‘The Apology Impulse’: Organisations are reluctant to apologise for operational failures while absolutely falling over themselves to apologise for cultural failures.
Outrage capitalism and why the customer isn’t always right
This eagerness to be seen to be sorry is linked to a concept we’ve termed ‘outrage capitalism’. There’s money to be made from the outrage of consumers. The viral media cashes in on rage-clicks whenever another company finds itself apologising for something cultural. And consumers know that if they’re able to extract a humiliating apology from a big brand, they stand a good chance of experiencing a little viral fame of their own.
But the customer isn’t always right. In fact, very often they’re wrong, or at least their position is morally ambiguous. Paperchase apologised for advertising in a newspaper that some people don’t like. University College London apologised for making a pun out of the song ‘White Christmas’. Zoopla’s transgression involved five talking crabs talking about moving house. These were trivial ‘non-controversies’ amplified by the media to humiliate the organisations and generate some clickable headlines. And it worked.
And they’re not always customers...
Organisations facing criticism, especially on social media, need to remember that of all the people criticising them or demanding an apology, only a small fraction will actually be customers. The rest fall into the grey area category of ‘audience’.
In fact, the more viral and humiliating a situation becomes for an organisation, the more onlookers and rubber-neckers there are chipping in to the conversation. While this can be disorientating, it doesn’t necessarily constitute a crisis.
These were trivial ‘non-controversies’ amplified by the media to humiliate the organisations and generate some clickable headlines. And it worked.
The unexpected benefits of not saying sorry
One of the few organisations that faced criticism but also understood the difference between customers and ‘audience’ was fitness supplement brand Protein World. Their ‘beach body ready’ campaign was hugely controversial. There were protests, multiple social media campaigns and enough media coverage to sink a ship.
Lots of people were angry. But Protein World didn’t apologise. In fact, they doubled down. They understood that people who claimed to have had their feelings hurt by the campaign were precisely the sort of people they could easily afford to alienate because it was unlikely they’d buy their product anyway. So they doubled-down.
Protein World’s Richard Stavely claimed that the media attention from the scandal actually helped the brand, saying that Protein World had enjoyed an extra £1 million in revenue in the four day period after the outrage really got spicey.
Apologies for demonstrable failures are good and necessary. They should be frank and carry with them an offer of repair. Apologies for hurt feelings are often highly risky. Look at the Twitter comments below any corporate apology for a cultural failure and you’ll see just as many consumers criticising the apology as there were consumer demanding it.
Sean O’Meara is a publicist and communications consultant. He is the co-author, along with Professor Sir Cary Cooper, of The Apology Impulse - How The Business World Ruined Sorry And Why We Can’t Stop Saying It, (Kogan Page) out now.