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Culpa Marketing: How To Win By Publicizing Screw Ups

There is nothing more powerful than a genuine heartfelt apology. At least, that’s what JCPenney is hoping based on a new ad the brand just released today 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. But in business, redemption stories do work as well.

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 of Culpa Marketing at work:

  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. Their lack of stonewalling help the crisis from escalating. It was a similar approach to the one the brand took in response to a controversy around stranded passengers back in 2007 that led the brand to issue it’s own Bill of Passenger Rights, and volunteer proactively to issue compensation retroactively for passengers who were inconvenienced.
  2. Domino’s Pizza launched a campaign showing real focus group footage of customers’ criticizing their crust by calling it “cardboard” and complaining that their tomato sauce “tasted like ketchup.” Then the brand recreated their product from the ground up and launched a new ad campaign touting their new pizza. Over the past four years, the brand has delivered rapid growth and profit – and every recently started promoting that their newest pizza will have their delivery teams slowing down, just to make sure and get the quality right.

This is the new model of marketing and crisis response – where brands admit their own faults proactively and publicly. They run million dollar advertising campaigns proclaiming their apologies far and wide. And 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 they need to do is actually change their experience into one that consumers will love again. You know … the “easy” part.

  • Jonathan_Trenn

    A few years ago, JC Penny pissed me off with an ad campaign that insulted fathers, showing a clueless dad at home with a young child with the voice over saying “Don’t worry dad, mom will be back soon”. It then cut to a scene showing a “mom” at JC Penney while the voice over continued telling us about a sale for women. As a single father, I haven’t been back since.

    I do see your point however. It is inviting toward those who may have been offended by their “changes”. Many people will give them another chance. One thing I would have used is a more diverse group of actors. Not everyone is under 35.

    • Rohit Bhargava

      Wow – yep, I hate the “clueless Dad” stereotype too. I can totally sympathize. I imagine most people in their target demo, though, are pretty neutral. They’d go if there was a need or sale, but are equally happy to shop elsewhere. For the indifferent consumer, I think this is good for them. Thanks for commenting!

  • mdawson, Chicago

    Interesting. My first response is – what brand doesn’t listening to their customers all along the way? And why would any brand make substantive changes without some kind of vetting or testing beforehand? I don’t shop at JCP because I don’t know where they fit in the retail landscape, but this ad doesn’t give me an idea of what they’re going to provide or do differently, either. Listen? That’s basic.

    • Rohit Bhargava

      Agree that it’s basic – but it definitely didn’t seem to be advice that they themselves took when launching the rebrand. Part of their earlier message was the customers wanted more “simplicity” – which may have technically been true … but their color-coded pricing scheme actually ended up being more confusing. The lesson in listening seems then to be that listening is always important, but we also need to avoid just hearing what we want to hear.

  • Holly

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. Our family never ordered from Dominoes & when they launched that ad campaign about their new pizza sauce we decided to give it a try. And we’ve ordered from them ever since. It worked on us. And I shop at JCP & remember the confusion on pricing before. But it wasn’t that difficult. The price was always lower at the register than on the tag and they had price scanners all over the store. Most of the complaints I heard after the change was that everything was more expensive. That their way to simply pricing was actually a plot to increase prices.

  • Ted Pendlebury

    New logo too – getting rid of that stupid square. Nice – much more friendly appearance.

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