Whoopsie! Do Apology Ads Fit within an Effective Strategic Communications Strategy?

By Kathy Butler and Erin Moores

The recent string of apology ads from Wells Fargo, Uber and Facebook should prompt some thinking from marketers about how companies handle crises and whether or not crisis communications can (or should) fit into an overall marketing communications strategy.

Strong strategic communications have a clear target and offer relevant, unique and understandable messages that support the overall positioning of the brand. When evaluating strategic communications, it is also useful to consider them from the behavioral economics perspective articulated in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Ads that capitalize on System 1 thinking (fast, automatic, unedited) will have more emotional resonance, while those with more complex content will require System 2 thinking (effortful, rational).

With all of that in mind, let’s take a moment to examine recent efforts from Wells Fargo, Uber and Facebook to give some thought to how well (or poorly) their recent apology ads fit with their broader strategic communications. All of the ads earn credit in at least some ways, yet all could also be optimized to better align with the overall strategic communications strategy.

Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo’s ad is probably the weakest of the bunch. To be fair, Wells Fargo had a lot to apologize for having faced a significant number of lawsuits and extensive fines from the SEC; and one ad campaign is unlikely to undo that damage. Even so, Wells Fargo’s ad focuses heavily on a core message around trust – having built a legacy of trust, losing trust and then aiming to reestablish trust. The difficulty with focusing so much on trust is that trust is an attribute that is considered to be table stakes in banking – if you don’t trust your bank, why would you put your money there? So while the core message of the ad is delivered clearly, it does not distinguish Wells Fargo from competitors at a critical moment when many current and potential customers are likely asking themselves why they should bother to consider Wells Fargo. One interesting point to note about the Wells Fargo ad is that it includes a very specific message aimed directly at the origin of the company’s problems. The ad mentions “ending product sales goals for branch bankers,” which offers a direct and explicit solution as opposed to a bland platitude. However, it’s hard to imagine this point won’t be lost on many who see the ad briefly since it requires System 2 thinking to absorb and digest. At the same time, it is unusual (and laudable) for this type of communication to offer something so concrete.


Uber’s ad, voiced by the company’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, feels sincere because of his delivery, yet ends up as a bit of a mixed bag. The ad highlights Uber’s core positioning early on when Khosrowshahi talks about changing the way people ride. There is also a passing reference to creating opportunities, which is presumably meant as a nod to drivers. Yet it is not clear who the ad is targeting: Riders? Drivers? Employees? Likely all three at the same time? The lack of a clear target means that the ad has a lot of competing messages vying for attention (new CEO, new company values, new commitments) – again requiring a lot of effortful System 2 thinking. The ad also feels a little paternalistic, with a successful male CEO talking and smiling and reassuring us that everything will be fine. Since so many of Uber’s misfortunes were blamed on the previous CEO, it’s easy to see why they took this approach, but even a cursory review of the company’s challenges show they are deeply rooted in the (past?) culture and, to a lesser extent, business model. A new CEO alone is unlikely to radically alter the company’s path, even if he smiles a lot and listens. The ad is a start and says many of the right things, but we’ll have to wait to see if Uber (and Khosrowshahi) can deliver.


Facebook’s ad gets off to a strong start, with narration that ties tightly to the company’s core positioning and by using words and images to trigger an effective System 1 emotional connection to the brand. In this way, Facebook’s ad is more attuned to how people receive strategic communications today, and that appreciation of System 1 thinking helps Facebook evoke how the company wants people to feel about the brand. The other ads, by relying more heavily on System 2 thinking, are not as easily integrated into feelings that exist about brands that have eroded trust. Facebook also keeps the messaging in the ad very simple – focusing on the core positioning and staying true to that positioning. This emotional connection is powerful and yet, unfortunately, it must be framed with an air of nostalgia, because Facebook has to (and does) acknowledge that the initial user experience has been corrupted and diminished. In the apology portion of the ad, Facebook says almost nothing about what will actually change, aside from promising to “do more.” Since many of the company’s recent challenges can be traced to laissez faire (at best?) regard for user privacy, it seems like a stretch to ask users to simply continue to trust Facebook to fix things based on a bland promise. Given the powerful start to the ad, it could have been made even more effective by linking that emotional connection to the brand with a simple and concrete corrective action.

Apology ads can be an effective way for companies to start steering their brands back on the right path to delivering their promise to customers. To be truly effective, these strategic communications should use quick System 1 thinking to tap into the original emotional connection and also illuminate a clear direction for the future. Companies also need to make sure the apologies don’t feel like empty lip service and that changes and amends are concrete, do not conflict with longer-term communications strategies, and stand up to System 2 analysis over time. If brands successfully balance System 1 and System 2 thinking, they are more likely to lead to: apology accepted.