Look, we screwed up

We hear a lot about how brands need to tell stories, develop a voice and become more human. There’s a lot of upside to doing these things and giving your brand a “face” beyond the name.

But part of being human is also making mistakes. Brands are not exempt. More often than not, how mistakes are handled determine more for your brand going forward than the mistake itself.

If you’ve ever used the online photo service Shutterfly you probably know about their big marketing screw-up a couple of weeks ago. They accidentally sent out a marketing message meant for new parents with babies to a bunch of other folks on their email lists.


Imagine the soul-crushing blow this gave to couples who struggle with infertility or a recent miscarriage. Or the chuckle to those who birthed their babies years ago or who don’t even have kids.

As a Shutterfly customer who witnessed this go down in my inbox firsthand, I took away two things from the incident:

1. Mining “Big data” comes with risk

The source of the screw up was a mixing of email lists that Shutterfly had created based on recent new baby purchases.

While big data enables marketers to tap into targeted customer streams like never before – something both they and the customer tend to benefit from – we must not forget that the people on the receiving end of our messages are just that: people.

2. Shutterfly’s response exuded an authentic hat tip to what makes us human: we all make mistakes.

Realizing right away what had happened, Shutterfly immediately took to social media to issue regrets and apologies. And within hours, I received an apology from the CMO.


I thought this worked pretty well. No excuses. No finger pointing. No bizarro corporate speak. Just a little note in plain language to say: Hey we screwed up. We understand the sensitivity of this screw-up in particular and we’re sorry.

Very human.

While this may not seem impressive to you, it made me like Shutterfly just a little bit more than I did the day before. Admitting to mistakes and making an effort to right them is an opportunity to create affinity with your customers.

If you want your brand to ignite an emotional response, if you want your brand to truly take on personality, this is par for the course. Frankly, there’s not enough ownership of mistakes in this world. You may find that your customers are not only appreciative, but completely taken off guard, sympathetic and even more willing to stick it out with you.

At the brokerage level, this is the type of thing that is difficult to control. But how hard would it be to train all incoming agents on your culture of mistakes – how you recognize them, manage them and learn from them? Why not carve out time at every sales meeting to examine them in detail and discuss?

You don’t need to call out agents by name. But go over the details of a recent mistake, what was done and what could’ve been done to avoid it. You’ll not only help your agents – especially newer ones – do a better job, but also help to build a culture of transparency and collaboration.

These things can go a long way in humanizing your brand.