Is JC Penney’s apology ad enough to repair brand damage?

The retailer released a new ad apologizing for last year’s rebranding campaign, which flopped. Will publicizing its screw up elicit goodwill?

There is nothing more powerful than a heartfelt apology. At least, that’s what JCPenney is hoping based on a new ad the brand released featuring an apology to customers for recent changes and a promise to start listening more.

The ad is a marked departure from the Apple-style “we’ll tell you what you really want” strategy employed by former CEO (and longtime Apple exec) Ron Johnson. (Here’s my take on why that didn’t work). Will this rapid apology and departure from the past year’s rebranding of “JCP” work?

If recent history is any guide, it certainly can. People love a good fallen hero story. This arc is at the center of hundreds of dramatic films every year. The “hero in trouble” scene where someone walks through the rain completely alone before the problem is resolved is the ultimate cinematic cliche.

The brand’s approach—mea culpa marketing—involves strategically using mistakes as an opportunity to rebuild trust by using a more human, direct and authentic style of communication to deliver a heartfelt apology and promise to make changes to solve the problem.

Consider these recent examples:

1. JetBlue immediately responded to a PR crisis with a pilot who had a “medical situation” on board a flight by releasing information instantly, not hiding any facts and communicating as a real person might. Its lack of stonewalling helped the crisis from escalating.

In 2007, the brand took a similar approach in response to a controversy around stranded passengers, which led the brand to issue its Bill of Passenger Rights and volunteer to issue compensation retroactively for inconvenienced passengers.

2. Domino’s Pizza launched a campaign showing real focus group footage of customers’ criticizing its crust by calling it “cardboard” and complaining that its tomato sauce “tasted like ketchup.” Then the brand recreated its product from the ground up and launched a new ad campaign touting its new pizza.

Over the past four years, Domino’s has delivered rapid growth and profit and recently promoted its delivery teams will slow down to better prepare its newest pizza.

This is the new model of marketing and crisis response—where brands admit their faults proactively and publicly. They run million dollar advertising campaigns proclaiming their apologies far and wide. Once that’s done, the foundation is laid. Opinions are ready to shift and large groups of consumers (apart from the haters) are ready to reconsider their brand opinions. They are ready to trust again, which is exactly where JCPenney hopes they will be.

Now all it needs to do is actually change its experience into one that consumers will love again. You know, the “easy” part.

Rohit Bhargava is the award-winning author of “Likeonomics,” a frequent keynote speaker on PR and the future of media, and adjunct professor of Global Marketing at Georgetown University. He also blogs at Influential Marketing Blog, where a version of this article first appeared.

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