Before Marketers Ask for Trust, Perhaps They Should Apologize

Banks, Insurers, Carmakers Can Learn a Lesson From U.K. Advertisers

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There are many ads today from our imperiled banks, insurance companies and automakers telling us that we can still trust them and should still buy their products. But there's one word consumers haven't heard much that might serve these companies better than their current dirges: sorry.

That thought came to mind as a rash of "We're sorry" ads broke out recently across the pond in the U.K. As a native of Britain, I should note that being sorry is our national pastime. (My parents, who are always profoundly apologetic, often on my behalf, fondly recall the time I briefly knocked out my 10-year-old self by walking into a parking meter and came to fuzzily apologizing to said inanimate object.) I've often wondered whether this propensity has anything to do with some deep-seated national guilt at the many atrocities committed by our former empire.

Regardless of its origins, these days it manifests itself in nothing more serious than an underwear manufacturer apologizing for charging bigger-breasted women more for bigger bras. Yes, Marks & Spencer recently ran a national campaign apologizing for this. The headline, of course: "We boobed."

This mea culpa hit more or less at the same time London's Evening Standard newspaper, relaunching under new ownership, ran a major outdoor campaign saying sorry: "Sorry for Losing Touch," "Sorry for Being Negative," and so on.

Sunny Delight also decided to confess its sins. It's running ads in a number of U.K. women's weeklies, with the wording: "Britain's mums told us where to stick the artificial ingredients. And it wasn't in the bottle." The drink has been relaunched as a healthful option.

Apologizing in ads isn't new. Under fire, it's crisis 101. In the auto industry, we've seen many variations, from Renault apologizing to the French people for its various missteps in the early '90s to various apologies alongside product recalls to GM's semi-apologetic "Road to Redemption" campaign.

Yet despite a mountain of evidence that American people feel they've been let down by car companies, banks, insurers and, indeed, corporate America as a whole, we haven't heard a whole lot of sorry.

Doug Wojcieszak, author of an apology-strategy book called "Sorry Works!" and founder of a company by the same name, says it's not a cultural thing, and that, in fact, sorry works in the U.S. "It works very well here because of our immigrant culture. Many of us screwed up elsewhere, that's why we're here. Americans get mistakes -- they just don't get or like coverups."

Perhaps the problem is CEOs and lawyers don't want to admit culpability for anything that's gone wrong. But even that doesn't stand up as an excuse, according to Mr. Wojcieszak. Most of his work has been in the litigation minefield of health care, where he's building a growing body of evidence that failure to apologize is often a key factor in malpractice becoming a lawsuit, and, conversely, that apologies defuse more potential legal situations than they create. "Even senior health-care executives are starting to understand that apologizing actually takes away the urge to litigate," he says.

Of course, as any savvy marketer, or properly-adjusted human being, knows, there are two conditions that have to be met for contrition to mean anything. You have to mean it, and you have to be able to show meaningful ways in which you're changing whatever it was you're apologizing for.

But assuming that many of the people at America's bailed-out banks and automakers probably are pretty sorry about way they mismanaged their businesses about now, I can't help thinking that it'd be a valuable start for a bunch of companies generally regarded as having been too arrogant to see the mistakes they were making to share their regrets with the public.

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