The Power of Vulnerability: Sometimes Big Mistakes Create Big Connection


Apology ads are almost always good ads.

First of all, they contrast surrounding messages, making them inherently unexpected and giving them the stopping power needed to get noticed. Then, there is the built-in intrigue. What is this? What happened? Why are they apologizing? We are drawn in, focusing to learn more. And then there is the natural authenticity of an attempt at apology — unvarnished, straight-talking.

They feel truthful. They are real. They are non-ad ads.

All of this tends to reveal the people behind a business. Audiences are allowed to connect on an emotional level with a brand’s humanity beyond standard attempts to sell or teach us something. “Someone here thinks it is important enough to say, ‘We’re sorry. This isn’t right. We screwed up.’”

It’s no coincidence, then, that all of my favorite brands have made big mistakes. They’ve overstepped… misspoken… made foolish assumptions… had supply chain controversies… were tone deaf to culture… on and on. They’ve all had to walk backwards, apologizing, and trying to make amends to their constituents.

As a result, these brands and I have been through something together — a disagreement of sorts. They’ve shown humility and a level of caring; I’ve had to step into a degree of grace and understanding. And I’ve stuck with them as a result. Now they mean more to me than just the sellers of shoes or computers or soap that I thought I knew before the controversy. I’m somehow more familiar, more connected, and more aligned.

The crisis brought out their ability to communicate in a way that was more effective than usual. They said something they wouldn’t typically have shared in a context not typically seen, and in a way that spoke more directly. And it worked! — solidifying my relationship with the brand.

The question is, why can’t marketing teams communicate like this all of the time? Why do we seem to save the straight talk, the humility, and the humanity for our apologies, but not practice this in all of our communications?

In crisis, we don’t try to predict
Teams love so-called “data-driven” decisions, but communicating will always be an art, not a science. Data can be great at finding audiences, listening for strategies, and measuring after the fact, but data has never been good at defining the message itself. Counting eyeballs doesn’t equal counting effectiveness. We don’t want to see a data-driven ad any more than we want to watch a data-driven movie or listen to a data-driven song.

Trust your gut on what people will care about and what they’ll respond to.

In crisis, we don’t try to agree
Crisis decisions move quickly and in smaller groups vs. the larger and longer processes that are typical. In normal times marketing teams are navigating the power dynamics of the presentation room to gain the vote or build consensus. This usually leads to over-analyzed, watered-down committee solutions rather than new, surprising, unexpected ideas that would be more effective in market. Creative teams fall into this trap, too, by imitating other brands or finding precedents to justify derivative work.

Good ideas need an advocate who is bold enough to shepherd the work alone.

In crisis, we don’t try to protect ourselves
Because the mistake was already made, we are more willing to dive straight into the bold, messy key point that matters. We don’t worry as much about what we can’t say… or what the industry usually says… or the expected product info… or anything that is “supposed to” be shown in an ad. The crisis team steps out of career management mode and into an honest appeal to the emotions of the audience.

Stop making ads. Start trying to make the audience like you.

Stop trying to be amazing
No one loves perfect brands or predictable, consistent messages. Love is in the surprises. We want heroes with flaws. And until we begin to embrace the unpredictable, risky unknowns and the brave leaps of faith in right-brained decision making, then we’ll never allow our brand to reach the most powerful market position of any — simply succeeding at doing its best.