“Not to mend one’s ways when one has erred is to err indeed.” – Confucius

We spend so much time interacting with brands on a regular basis that it’s no wonder we can equate them to people in our lives. We meet, we fall in love, and we settle down for life. Or something goes wrong. What then?

In order to determine how likely we are to forgive mistakes and stay put or walk out the door and never look back, one study (see reference below) created two brand “personalities” for a digital photography website and recruited two matched samples to bond with each. As is often the case with people in our lives, consumers were more likely to develop strong and consistent relationships with the sincere brand compared to the fun one (where feelings were prone to peak and crash repeatedly).

However, the results following a transgression (accidentally “losing” uploaded photographs) were not expected. The relationship with the sincere brand remained irreparably damaged even after a genuine apology. With the fun brand, the transgression was forgiven (and the relationship improved) after nothing more than a casual “my bad”. It seems that because the relationship with the fun brand looked set to deteriorate even if the transgression did not occur, the apology was viewed as an unexpected treat while the sincere brand should have known better than to mess up in the first place.

The authors admit that the conclusions may be premature since the study used only two months to create connections with dichotomised personalities in a single product category. We know that transgressions can serve as defining moments that ultimately strengthen relationships with sincere brands. The case with Toyota comes to mind. Even as cars were being recalled worldwide, many highly attached “brandvocates” (if people can make up new words everyday, so can I) didn’t change their opinions at all. They care enough to “do the work” and make things right because the relationship matters. That’s the power of branding.

Of course this doesn’t give strong brands the freedom to do as they please. Even classic success literature teaches us to apologise quickly, accept full responsibility, and always be sincere, which some feel Toyota didn’t do. Openly acknowledging that you made a mistake and are doing all it takes to resolve it shows you’re human after all. As long as you have a plan, it doesn’t need to be a complete wreck. In fact, with the ever increasing chance of brands in rehab, putting it together now would be a good idea.  

(For more, see ‘When Good Brands Do Bad’, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 31, June 2004)