We’re Uber Sorry: The Content of Branded Apologies

The other day I flipped through the Southwest inflight magazine in a desperate attempt to occupy a small sliver of my six-hour flight. On the third page, I found a lengthy apology from CEO Gary Kelly, pleading to regain customers’ trust and continue serving them. While I had honestly forgotten about how they had just recently lost their first passenger in their 38-year history and could have done without them bringing the incident up again, I was pleased and impressed by their timeliness and candor. Their two-free-bags policy and Wanna-Get-Away fare were enough to lure me in, but their honesty sealed the deal for me. They appeared genuine and open; two qualities I strive for in all of my dealings, people-wise or otherwise.

Southwest is not alone in their efforts to — very publicly — make reparations for harm caused. Circulating the TV commercial sphere at the moment are three apologies from Uber, Facebook, and Wells Fargo. All have been in hot water for various wrongdoings and are now making amends. Yet, what exactly do these apologies entail?

Uber:

Dara Khosrowshahi discusses how, in his past nine months as CEO, his priority has been “to listen to you…and my own employees.” He alludes to replacing previous CEO Travis Kalanick, who stepped down after the company was hit by political controversy and sexual harassment allegations. Under Khosrowshahi’s tutelage, Uber will “move in a new direction,” employing “new leadership and a new culture.” This approach is a subtle acknowledgment of the elephant in the room, insinuations of problems muted within the presence of a “new” framework. Such a forward-facing stance, while questionably an “apology,” undeniably harnesses the power of Uber’s image as a ride-sharing pioneer, forever looking beyond the horizon at what is next.

Facebook:

Facebook takes a nostalgic approach to their apology to address issues of personal data breach, clickbait, and spam. The company highlights their emotional connection with consumers, using “we” throughout to reference how, regardless of title, creators and consumers are all ultimately Facebook users. The actual content is vague, obscuring already-ambiguous language “something happened” and “do more” with goofy pictures and videos that tug at our heartstrings and remind us of what made Facebook great in the first place: friends.

Wells Fargo:

Wells Fargo draws on their Wild West-pioneering history to emphasize their positioning as a time-tested, reliable brand in the face of the fraudulent accounts scandal. Old photos and video validate its historical tenure, suggesting there is a reason the company has stuck around for so long. The father walking his child into the bank plays double duty, highlighting the timelessness while symbolizing a “new day” a la Uber. The balance the brand hopes to strike between the new and old days, the pioneering spirit and the classic dependability is reiterated at the closing: “Wells Fargo. Established 1852. Re-established 2018.”

What intrigues me about all of these apologies is that, regardless of their effectiveness or the company’s true moral standing, the companies chose to issue them and draw attention in some way to their wrongdoings. Besides Southwest, whose error was recent and public apology swift, the other three companies are intentionally drawing attention to their blunders long after the incidents. Why would they choose to address it now, long after the fact? I imagine it is largely to influence the public’s perception of the brand. After being tainted by these scandals and the negative backlash that followed, it is up to the brands to highlight their positives and maintain their customer base, which had been affected in the events. In the wake of users deleting the Uber app and customers closing their Wells Fargo accounts, apologizing in a way that returned to these brands’ roots is a step towards brand image and client base recovery. Will it be enough to re-forge the bond with discontent customers? Truly, only time can tell, but it is clear that for now, any promise of a better future – no matter how vague – may reassure customers and help build back that lost trust.