How a strong brand tone of voice can help you recover from controversy

by Sophie Cole

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While most companies do their best to avoid controversy, embarrassing slip-ups and misjudged marketing or brand tone of voice choices are almost inevitable in a brand’s lifetime. And for the majority, a mistake is not the end of the world. Follow it up with a speedy apology, which nails it from a tonal and content writing perspective, and you can turn it into a valuable marketing moment.

What the KFC

The great ‘chickengate’ of 2018 saw KFC run out of its eponymous dish, among other menu items, after switching delivery providers. DHL’s inability to keep up with demand caused a national meltdown so great that Tower Hamlets police had to remind residents that a lack of chicken was not a criminal offence. KFC was mentioned more than 53,000 times on twitter in one day, according to Brandwatch, and the debacle made front-page news.

After days of battling to reopen closed restaurants and resolve crippling shortages, KFC released its now-legendary print ad. Its logo had been reversed, spelling out ‘FCK’ instead and a short, sincere and conversational apology appeared below.

Social media erupted in praise and amusement and the story reached more than a billion eyes, despite only being published in two UK newspapers with around six million readers. Its self-deprecating and mischievous response earned it several prestigious awards and its tone of voice across all communications now seems to have shifted in a more playful, human direction.

After the scandal had settled down, Meghan Farren, KFC’s chief marketing officer, revealed to Campaign Live[1]that tapping into customers’ empathy had been more effective than the brand could’ve dreamed.

“What I have learned is that allowing people to empathise with you can really go a long way to rebuilding trust and to forgiveness, and that is essentially what we did. Brands are like people. If you want people to connect with other people, you are authentic and open and honest and humble – we just acted like that [as a brand].”

On your bike

Peloton’s misjudged Christmas ad of 2019 became meme-material shortly after it was released. The 30-second clip began with a husband gifting his wife a Peloton exercise bike. So far, so inoffensive. However, the advert quickly descended into pure, unadulterated cringe as the leading lady turned into some kind of smug vlogger. At its sickly-sweet conclusion, we realise she had been recording herself so she could show her husband just how much she liked her gift.

The clip divided viewers. Some thought it was strange and sexist, particularly as the main actress looked reluctant to use her pricey present. Others were bemused by the fuss and thought there was nothing wrong with the ad. Peloton stood behind its decision, releasing a statement that said its customers often say its products have changed their lives and that the advert’s intention was “to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey”.

In its ‘Show Up’ advert, which was released at the same time in Germany, Peloton managed to portray itself in a more relatable way. Dedicated cyclists were shown dripping with sweat, come rain, shine or snow, as its instructors guided them to glory. This festive ad’s tone of voice was worlds away from America’s scary Stepford Wife character and felt genuinely inspiring, rather than terrifying. And while Peloton quickly recovered following its misjudged ad, it’s likely to follow the brand around for much longer than it would like.

A scandal close to home

Following an industry-wide scandal about the widespread major faults in new-build houses, Bovis Homes knew it had to respond swiftly to control the damage its brand sustained. It released a statement which acknowledged the substandard homes and apologised to affected customers.

“We recognise that our customer service has to improve and we are absolutely committed to getting this right and are taking actions to put in place robust procedures and practices to rectify issues such as these and prevent them from occurring again.”

By using language such as ‘recognise’, ‘absolutely committed’, ‘taking actions’, ‘rectify issues’ and ‘prevent’, Bovis Homes attempted to regain its lost trust and mend its reputation with customers. Admitting to mistakes and providing customers with an explanation of how situations would be resolved was the first step towards successfully neutralising bad news and repositioning the brand.

It followed its words with decisive action, pledging to pay £7million to repair customers’ poorly-built homes and has since rebranded to Vistry Group, after acquiring Linden Homes.

Make a comeback using your tone of voice

To come back from severe setbacks which have led to disappointed and appalled customers, it’s vital companies find ways to rebuild trust with customers and the community more broadly. One way to do this is a carefully considered content strategy which uses engaging and informative content to show transparency and authenticity, helping to return the company to a position of loyalty and trust.

Once a company has built up its trust again amongst customers, it can begin to actively invite online reviews and include customer testimonials on its website or any brochures. This shows a willingness to be accountable and a commitment to improving standards. It could also release regular blog posts about recent successful projects and keep interacting positively with customers on social media sites. These are all ways in which a company, such as Bovis Homes, could use their tone of voice to rebuild customer confidence and help its brand recover from damage caused by previous mistakes.

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