In the 1970 film “Love Story,” starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, MacGraw’s character Jennifer famously tells O’Neal’s character Oliver that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” At the time, the line became a national catch phrase and the embodiment of authentic romance. But since then, the line has been criticized and parodied by everyone from The Simpsons to Ryan O’Neal himself in another film. And rightfully so. It couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In advertising and marketing, whether to consumers, clients, or colleagues, “I’m Sorry” are two of the most powerful, disarming words you can utter. Maybe that’s because they are so rarely used. When a mistake happens, or something negative is said, we often just brush it away hoping it will soon be forgotten. Our egos discard the aftermath because to say, “I’m sorry” is an admission of guilt. A blow to our pride. A revealing of our vulnerability. But a heartfelt “I’m sorry” is also one of the things that make us better leaders. It’s the one thing that restores trust and relationship with the people we’re closest to, faster than anything else.
We were reminded of that fact again last week with the fall and rise of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Due to a massive issue with a new logistics system, 900 KFC restaurants in the UK and Ireland found themselves without any chicken. Admittedly, quite a problem for a chain whose entire menu relies on … chicken. Customers hungry for something “finger lickin’ good” were met instead with “CLOSED” signs and a brief explanation on the door about the “hiccup” with their deliveries.
Customers’ immediate reaction was anger, frustration, and the expected social media firestorm online. At first, KFC tried to play it off with humor, but customers weren’t having it. Angry chicken lovers wanted their pound of flesh. Or in this case, a pound of extra crispy tenders with a side of mashed potatoes and a biscuit. Unfortunately, KFC wasn’t able to deliver that.
What they could deliver, was a sincere “I’m sorry” delivered in a brilliant way that only they could.
This ad featuring an inspired reordering of KFC’s famous logo ran last week in newspapers across the UK and by the reactions of KFC fans online, their trust in the brand was not only restored, but heightened—in part, due to the bold, cheeky nature of the content, but also because KFC owned up to their massive mistake and offered a mea culpa that will be talked about for years to come. The copy reads:
A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal. Huge apologies to our customers, especially those who traveled out of the way to find we were closed. And endless thanks to our KFC team members and our franchise partners for working tirelessly to improve the situation. It’s been a hell of a week, but we’re making progress, and every day more and more fresh chicken is being delivered to our restaurants. Thank you for bearing with us.
Taking responsibility. Not remaining silent. Empowering your team to make things right with disgruntled customers. They are all common to companies who not only weathered the storm, but came out better on the other side. KFC remembered what we all need to. That real love—for your customers, for your clients, for your coworkers, for your family—always means saying “I’m sorry” when it’s warranted, even when it’s hard.
It’s what real leadership looks like.