As established in my previous article, "New lessons from 6 tweets gone wrong," all brands are vulnerable to making mistakes. It is how brands deal with mishaps that demonstrate the true character of the company. The common reaction to any mistake is an apology; however, not all people (and brands, for that matter) define "apology" in the same manner.
Like most words in the English language, the connotations associated with the word "apology" have evolved throughout the course of history -- leaving the modern interpretation of the word up to those who choose to ponder it.
In "The apology of Socrates," Plato used the word apology to indicate defense. The apology of Socrates is, in fact, a retelling of Socrates' masterful oratory before the court that would later condemn him to death.
During the Middle Ages, to apologize was to simply make an excuse in passing. Beginning with the Renaissance through the turn of the century, the term apology took on religious meaning as it became synonymous with the word pardon.
Today, the weight and definition of the word apology varies according to the user, and brands are no exception to this phenomenon. Brands, pressured by consumers, are often compelled to apologize when serious mistakes are made. Some brand apologies are clearly defensive reactions while others come off as half-hearted excuses. On occasion, a brand will beg for forgiveness with true sincerity.
Here is a look at the art of the brand apology as demonstrated recently by some of the biggest brands in the world.
The sin: Hackers infiltrated the Sony PlayStation Network (which includes Sony Online Entertainment) and stole data pertaining to more than 77 million users. Just a few days later, the cyber criminals struck again, hacking an out-dated (2007) database that contained sensitive customer information including names, addresses, birth dates, passwords, and even credit card information.
The penance: After taking a 26-day hiatus to restore its systems, Sony offered its customers a welcome-back program that included upgrades and purchase credits. Sony also offered to enroll customers in identity theft protection programs -- such as cyber monitoring -- at no cost to customers.
In the welcome-back video, Sony executive Kazuo Hirai offered his "sincere apologies for the inconvenience the service outage has caused" and went on to thank Sony customers for their patience.
"We know you've invested in Sony and the PlayStation network and Qriocity services, and we will do everything we can to regain your trust and confidence. We also realize that actions speak louder than words, and we're taking aggressive action to address the concerns that were raised by this incident." Hirai explained that Sony had "greatly upgraded" its data security systems with "increased levels of encryption" in addition to improved firewalls and an updated detection system.
Sony was able to successfully launch its newly fortified systems in early May. However, despite the new security measures, Japan -- where Sony is based -- initially refused to allow the company to launch the PlayStation Network within the country until additional security measures were in place.
The aftermath: While it's too early to detect the long-term effects of the breech, it is certain that Sony still faces an uphill battle: A slew of lawsuits cropped up when consumers learned that their information had been leaked, and the company has yet to fully regain consumer trust. According to Business Insider, analysts are certain that the breach will cost Sony more than $1 billion.
The sin: In May 2011, the names, account numbers, and email addresses of 200,000 Citibank customers were compromised when the company was hacked by thieves.
The penance: Citigroup's response to the situation was mysterious: It took the company more than a month to contact its customers about the breach. When the situation was leaked to the public, Citigroup's spokesman, Sean Kevelighan, admitted to the hack but refused to divulge any information. "For the security of these customers, we are not disclosing further details," he said.
The aftermath: It's too soon to tell how severely this security breach will affect Citigroup. However, the Sony situation is a good indicator of how things might go for the company. Sony waited a week to go public with the information -- many customers viewed this as a gross violation of trust. One can only assume that in waiting a month to disclose this vital information, Citibank customers will be in an uproar over the company's negligence. Citibank is sure to face some serious legal and financial difficulties over this debacle.
The sin: In April 20111, a ticket rep for the Yankees accidentally sent out an email attachment that contained the names, addresses, email, phone numbers, and Yankee.com IDs of 21,466 of the team's season ticket holders. Ticket holders were infuriated, as this gaffe left them vulnerable to spammers and possible thieves who, upon guessing the right password, could gain access to the actual tickets.
The penance: The Yankees franchise wasn't as penitent as it could have been. According to Deadspin, the Yankees didn't even bother to let subscribes know of the breach until the incident was made public on the internet. Only then did the Yankees send out a message to subscribers itemizing the confidential data disclosed in the ticket rep's errant email. While the email did state that "the Yankees deeply regret this incident, and any inconvenience that it might cause," there was no solid apology or effort to rectify the situation. The only conciliatory act detailed in the email was that "remedial measures were undertaken so as to assure that a similar incident could not happen again."
To compound matters, in what can only be assumed was a secondary mistake, the subject line of the apology email was left blank.
The aftermath: To many, this email came off as a half-hearted attempt to save face. According to mediabistro.com, there was no official apology, no effort to "make things up" to those that had been affected, the rep kept his job, and the Yankees made no further comment.
While it's too early to tell what the fallout will be from this incident, one thing is certain: The Yankees franchise, unlike Sony, is confident that its brand is beyond the need to recompense fans whose accounts were compromised.
The sin: In 2009, consumers were horrified by what became known as the Domino's "gross out" video. In case you live under a rock: These videos demonstrate unsupervised employees snorting, sneezing, and passing gas on Domino's edibles -- presumably before the food was delivered to unsuspecting customers.
In an act of absolute idiocy, the aforementioned employees then decided to post their videos online. In a matter of hours, the video went viral, and Domino's found itself at the center of a very sticky situation.
The penance: Dominos immediately fired the two employees, Kristy Hammonds (who also happens to be a registered sex offender) and Michael Setzer.
And, 48 hours later, the company issued a video apology.
In the video, Domino's President Patrick Doyle made it clear that while the offending workers claimed the video was a hoax, Domino's intended to take situation "very seriously." To illuminate just how serious, Doyle stated that "the two team members have been dismissed and there are felony warrants out for their arrest."
Domino's made good on its word; the employees were apprehended and arrested.
Kristy Hammonds, who was charged with felony adulterating food, received a 45-day suspended jail sentence and 18 months of probation after entering a deal in which she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. Michael Setzer also pleaded guilty and was hit with a six-month suspended jail sentence followed by 24 months of supervised probation.
The aftermath: Unfortunately, this incident spelled out doom for the North Carolina franchise. Despite a thorough disinfecting of the location and a new set of employees, customers shied away from the store. Several months later, the franchise owner was forced to close down his business due to shoddy sales.
By the time Domino's removed the video from YouTube, it had garnered almost 1 million hits. Naysayers cited this, and the fact that Dominos took a full 48 hours to apologize, as the reason for the immediate nosedive in positive feedback for the company online.
The following chart, created via Infegy's Social Radar, measured the damage in the social media arena.
However, all is not lost. Today, Domino's sales are going strong. According to Yahoo Finance, the company recently opened its first store in Poland and expects its global retail sales to increase from 4 to 7 percent in the near future -- not too shabby for a food chain that had to apologize for unsanitary practices less than two years ago.
The sin: In the summer of 2009, Amazon remotely deleted George Orwell's "1984" from the Kindle devices of users who had bought the book online. Consumers were not just angry -- they were horrified to discover that the book had suddenly vanished from their Kindles along with any highlighting, earmarking, and notes that they might have stored on the device. It was an absurdly ironic act (to say the least) considering that the book's central theme revolves around censorship and oppression.
Amazon cited legal issues as the reason for the recall. Apparently Mobile Reference, the company that added the books to the Amazon site, did not own the rights to sell the titles.
The penance: Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, posted an apology on the company forum, where he admitted that the act was "stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with [Amazon's] principles."
Bezos then went on to prostrate himself and the company by saying, "We deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission."
The aftermath: While many folks were outraged at the time, it appears as if the whole incident is water under the bridge. Kindle sales are at an all time high; according to Bloomberg Businessweek, Amazon exceeded its projected Kindle sales by 60 percent in 2010. That's more than 8 million devices -- which goes to show that consumers tend to have short-term memories.
H&M and Walmart
The sin: In 2010, The New York Times ran an article about companies that destroyed unused and unwanted clothing. The offending companies -- H&M and Walmart -- left piles of slashed clothing in trash bags outside their stores in the dead of winter, when many of the cities' poor were freezing and in need of warm garments.
According to the article, New York City resident Cynthia Magnus stumbled across multitudinous trash bags filled with damaged clothing from Walmart and H&M stores. She collected the clothing in an effort to patch up the items, which she then intended to donate to a local shelter.
Magnus repeatedly attempted to contact representatives for H&M -- she proposed to align the company with a charity to which it could donate the unwanted clothing. Much to her chagrin, she was repeatedly ignored. So, Magnus tipped off The New York Times in hopes of revealing the shoddy practice to the public.
The penance: According to New York Magazine, The New York Times attempted to contact a rep from H&M 10 times before spokesperson Nicole Christie finally offered a response. Christie asserted that it would "not happen again" and insisted that normally H&M donates its unworn clothing to charity. Walmart spokeswoman Melissa Hill claimed to have absolutely no knowledge of why that particular store destroyed the clothing, and contended that it was Walmart policy to donate or recycle unwanted materials.
Neither company issued a formal apology and instead opted to go on the defense -- claiming ignorance.
The aftermath: Despite the initial wave of negative media attention, the scandal died down fairly quickly. A year and a half after the event, it appears as if it's business as usual for the two mega-brands.
The sin: In the summer of 2010, Apple released the iPhone 4. Devoted customers -- some had waited in line for hours to purchase the device -- were sorely disappointed when it was discovered that the phone's antenna placement inhibits its functionality. Left-handed users found that the iPhone 4 constantly dropped calls because the position of their hand on the back of the device blocked the antenna signal.
The penance: When Endgaget inquired about the mistake, Apple responded with an email that encouraged users to "avoid gripping [the iPhone 4] in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases."
Yes, you read it correctly: Apple made a critical mistake in the design of the iPhone 4, and when confronted, the company responded by telling users they should change the position of their hand or purchase additional accessories to improve antenna utility. Not much of a penance, was it?
Customers became even angrier after Apple's response to the oversight, and eventually irate consumers and the critical press pressured Apple into offering a free phone "bumper" to users who were having problems with iPhone 4 reception.
The aftermath: Apple continues to grow exponentially; the introduction of new generations of devices has eclipsed the scandal and, for the most part, the whole calamity seems to have been forgotten by the general public.
These eight examples demonstrate how different brands respond to a diverse array of scandals. The anatomy of these "apologies" only proves that there is not necessarily a right way to say "I'm sorry" to your customers. Much depends on your brand's threshold for scandal and the expected damage (both in image and bottom-line sales) that a given incident might ultimately have.
The key is to keep tabs on what is being said about your company and to act according to popular demands -- consumers, at the very least, deserve some type of response.
Jennifer Marlo is an associate editor at iMedia Connection.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.