Sorry seems to be the hardest word — but why?

Pick up a newspaper or scroll through any social media feed at the moment and you’ll find at least one celebrity, politician or brand apologising for something they did, said or thought, that may potentially have caused offence or distress or hurt, to someone or some group at some point in the past.

It may only be a 5-letter word but using it correctly is so important, both personally and professionally. We wanted to take a look at 5 types of apology and see how effective they are (or not) in achieving their purpose — saying we’re aware of what we did, and we’ll try to do better in future.

The Honest Apology

This is what everyone should be aiming for when they say “sorry” — especially when they know they are clearly and undoubtedly in the wrong.

Film director James Gunn’s historic “jokes” about a variety of taboo topics were monumentally misjudged and quite rightly drew fire from many quarters. He apologised unreservedly but was still fired from his role with Disney — a decision that was later reversed when it became clear that he retained the absolute trust and support of his cast and crew.

Jimmy Fallon’s Saturday Night Live sketch from 2000 where he wore blackface is another example of someone who should have known better getting it wrong. In his live show on June 2nd, Fallon gave a very public and very raw apology.

Source: Andrew Cline /

What makes an honest apology work is the willingness to calmly take responsibility for the mistake without excuse or explanation and, where possible, look to make amends.

Of course, the way someone apologises is very important too. Fallon’s and Gunn’s apologies come across as heartfelt and their feeling of remorse seem quite genuine.

But that’s not always the case.

The Schrödinger Apology

Who remembers Peloton’s questionable decision to release a commercial where the story revolved around a woman’s yearlong journey to lose 4lbs? Unsurprisingly it caused howls of derision and outrage on social media.

However, in their “apology” message — and, yes, the air-quotes are justified — Peloton said:

Source: Turtl

In other words, it’s not us, it’s you!

The market disagreed and Peloton’s stock fell 9.12% due to the negative publicity over the ad. This amounted to a $1.5 billion loss in market value. That’s probably not the weight loss they had in mind.

This is an example of what Sean O’Meara, co-author of The Apology Impulse calls the “Schrodinger Apology”;

“The worst habit an apologiser can fall into is leading with a qualifying character reference,” he argues. “If you’re going to apologise when you fail, you don’t get to speak to your own virtues.”

Source: Michael Vi /

The Proactive Apology

Sometimes, the strategy is to apologise before you really have to — the proactive apology. The intention is to get ahead of the problem before it gets out of control, but it’s not always that easy. Take country music band Lady Antebellum’s recent decision to change their name to Lady A. In the statement where the change was announced the band said:

“We are deeply sorry for the hurt this has caused and for anyone who has felt unsafe, unseen or unvalued”

Source: Instagram (@ladya)

It’s absolutely true that the word antebellum refers to the period of time before the American Civil War and is associated with the slave era. However, it’s equally true that there was no significant outcry at the name and the band have been using it quite comfortably for nearly 15 years.

Several people have questioned whether this change was driven more by genuine remorse or by fear of association following the wave of Black Lives Matters protests sweeping the globe. One of those asking was an African-American singer called Anita White from Seattle, who has been performing professionally as Lady A for over twenty years.


The Historic Apology

But what do you do when the offence for which you are apologising for, happened many years ago, when the world was a very different place? In the end, there isn’t much you can do except own it.

The founders of both the Hugo Boss and IKEA brand have uncomfortable ties with Nazism. In the case of Hugo Boss, his forced labour factory helped to supply Nazi uniforms including for the Waffen SS. In 2011, the company formally apologised for using slave labour during the war and published a book which sought to reveal the true history of the company during the Hitler years.

Source: BOOCYS /

“It is clear that Hugo F Boss did not only join the party because it led to contracts for uniform production, but also because he was a follower of National Socialism,” wrote the author, Roman Koester, an economic historian at the Bundeswehr University in Munich.

In 2011, a Swedish journalist named Elisabeth Åsbrink, published a book revealing the depth of the ties between IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad and the Nazi party. It took the company over a month to respond, but when it did, the company ultimately made a $51 million donation to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the single-largest donation in the history of that organization.

The Problematic Apology

In 2017, Dove — the pioneer of brand purpose — got itself into hot water over a 3-second advertisement that was posted on Facebook.

The ad, which shows a black woman removing a brown T-shirt revealing a white woman in a white T-shirt underneath, led to an outcry on social media about black skin being washed away into white.

The company promptly apologised saying:

Source: Twitter (@Dove)

On the face of it, that’s a decent attempt at an honest apology and the media storm soon passed.

However, there is a fly in the ointment; Unilever also own the skin lightening brand Fair & Lovely whose advertisements often depict women with darker skin losing out on the man they love or job they seek — until they lighten their skin.

Sunil Bhatia, a professor at Connecticut College wrote an article in U.S. News & World Report where he said: “(Unilever’s Fair & Lovely) commercials depict dark-skinned women transforming into light-skinned women with a direct result of success in romance and careers. Preference of fair skin is a symptom of internalised racism and colourism — one of the tragic but enduring legacies of British imperialism.”

These products are proving especially problematic at this moment in time. Unilever, P&G, Johnson and Johnson and L’Oreal have all been accused of hypocrisy recently for supporting the Black Lives Matter campaign whilst simultaneously pushing skin lightening creams.

The HX Learning

There is an art to apologising, of turning that uncomfortable position of being in the wrong and taking responsibility for what has happened. It’s one of the most human interactions there is. It involves complex emotions like contrition, remorse and guilt.

There is a fear of judgement, of being unable to repair a relationship. There is a critical vulnerability to an apology and there is always the risk that things cannot be the same again.

Maybe that is why many brands struggle to get apologies right. Many brands don’t identify strongly to any one individual and an apology from a faceless corporation cannot match the personal touch of a human-to-human conversation. Brands don’t like appearing vulnerable, which may explain why they have a tendency to caveat their apologies and try to explain away their actions.

But there is also a strength that comes from apologising and meaning it. You can walk away feeling more enlightened, more self-aware and more educated than you were before.

Brands are born of humans and humans will screw up. That will remain a fact of life until the robots take over, but it means that brands can learn to apologise like humans, to show empathy and vulnerability like humans, learn from their mistakes and draw strength as well.

By the way, not everyone will agree with some of the examples I’ve used here. Some might think that Jimmy Fallon was playing to this audience, whilst others might have genuinely spent a decade angry at the use of the word ‘antebellum’ in the name of a band.

And if that is the case, then I humbly apologise.

Marc Edwards is a director at Brand Genetics, an agency specialising in human-centred insight and innovation. With nearly 20 years of agency and client-side experience, Marc is an insight and innovation specialist, with and a track record of driving value in brand and products through strategic planning and creative ideation.

Human-Centered Insight, Innovation and Trends from Brand Genetics

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