Lessons from HBO, Qantas and FedEx on handling mistakes and building trust


Have you ever worried about a waiter stuffing up your order at the first sign of poor service? Turns out you’re not alone. Edelman, the organisation which has been studying trust for over two decades, recently found that distrust is the most common default emotional response. Nearly six in 10 people suggest they usually distrust something until they see evidence it is trustworthy.  Fake news and algorithmic-based news bubbles proliferate our online worlds. It’s hard to know which sources of

of information we can trust. The level of distrust toward journalists, governments and NGOs is now so high that businesses are the most trusted organisations, according to Edelman.

Despite this, businesses still need to work hard to be trusted. There are four key principles to building trust:

Create empathy through transparency – honesty can rebuild goodwill when things go wrongPay attention to negative reviews and correct missteps to thrive in the reputation economyWe tend to trust those close to us. Tap into localism as it relates to your brandBe authentic. People value brands that are human, and relatable

When things go wrong, rebuild trust through transparency

It can be tempting to sweep mistakes under the rug. But coming clean and offering customers reassurance when things go wrong can endear them to you and show them you are true to your word.

We saw this when HBO Max accidentally sent a blank email to a portion of its mailing list, they recognised the incident by tweeting a light-hearted apology in response to the jokes being made. The tweet attributed the error to an intern and said HBO Max were providing them with support for the embarrassing gaffe. 

In another instance, English artist Adele gave a tearful explanation to fans via Instagram when she postponed her Las Vegas show at the last minute earlier this year. Crying, Adele explained the delivery delays and impact of Covid within her team. She was visibly upset that she couldn’t give audiences what they wanted. Being so open, sincere and vulnerable made ticket holders understand her plight more than a faceless email.

When KFC ran into chicken shortages in 2018, they fronted up by taking out ads that twisted the name of the outfit to make light of the situation. The full-page ads that led with ‘FCK’ a play on the brand name, were hard to miss. The ad included an apology and a promise to do better, offering customers reassurance things were beginning to look up.

These examples show how giving customers insight into the inner workings of your brand – even when things go wrong – can help to build trust. 

Pay attention to negative reviews to thrive in the reputation economy

Reputation means everything in the age of peer-to-peer sharing models, reviews and rankings. Online voices play a role in shaping brands and keeping them real. As Bill Gates said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” 

Take fashion brand Noah. Customer feedback made it clear the plastic packaging of online purchases didn’t reflect the high-end retail experience. Noah responded by posting ‘our packaging sucks’ on the brand’s blog, dedicated print advertising and social channels. The message was accompanied by an explanation that the brand was trying to minimise waste by not creating additional packaging. The clear logic appeased those complaining. 

The tactic of addressing reviews head on was illustrated in one study which found replying to reviews results improved ratings. Amongst hotel management, those who started responding saw an increase of 12 per cent in reviews and their ratings improved by an average of 0.12 stars.

The New Zealand restaurant Coco’s Cantina dealt with negative reviews by posting them on its website – including those that were laughable. One comment referred to the owners, complaining that “the skinny sister is a bitch”. While the feedback is amusing rather than sincere, it shows the restaurant pays close attention to its customers and cares what they think.

Whether you agree with customer feedback or not, it’s valuable to engage in conversation. Showing you care builds trust and protects your brand’s reputation online.  

Harness the power of local to build trust in your brand 

People are returning to locally made products for emotional, ecological, ethical, economical and health reasons. Meeting the demand for local can help brands foster stronger trust. 

In 2021, the UK department store John Lewis capitalised on the hybrid working trend by opening new locations close to where people live. Their belief that people wouldn’t return to full-time work in offices was the main reason for the growth, as well as a desire to prioritise convenience for customers. By reducing barriers for customers and making it easier for them to shop closer to home, John Lewis showed that local communities were important to them.

The Qantas campaign ‘I still call Australia home’ featured famous Australians Kylie Minogue, Hugh Jackman and Troye Sivan alongside airline staff, Bangarra dancers and the Qantas choir. The ads showed how enduring the spirit of Australia was, stirring up patriotism. It used the power of local pride to cultivate positive sentiment and loyalty at a time when the travel industry was suffering.

In March 2022 New York City launched the campaign ‘Get Local NYC’ in response to the pandemic, encouraging people to explore the five boroughs with the attitude of a local. ‘Bronx Like a New Yorker,’ ‘Brooklyn Like a New Yorker,’ ‘Manhattan Like a New Yorker,’ ‘Queens Like a New Yorker,’ and ‘Staten Island Like a New Yorker,’ read the street posters. Tapping into the pride of New Yorkers is central to the success of this campaign, with the goal being to exceed pre-pandemic levels of tourism.

Supporting the recovery of the local economy is a powerful message to people who feel a strong affinity with their surroundings. If you don’t have pride on your side, think about cultural nuances you can leverage. For example, consider TRA’s Kiwi Codes to understand what’s important to New Zealanders, and what will help them resonate with your brand. 

People value authentic, relatable brands

Raw authenticity acts a counterpoint to filtered digital worlds. Brands that peel back their shiny facades in meaningful ways can forge strong connections with their followers. 

Take the personal Instagram account of Saeed Al-Rubeyi, founder of a craft-based clothing company Story mfg. Al-Rubeyi’s shares inspirations, creative output and snippets of his daily life to give people insight into the slow-fashion brand. He also publicises when Story mfg designs are replicated without consent by big brands like Urban Outfitters, gaining Story mfg credit and shares. Applying an open-source approach brings Al-Rubeyi’s customers along for the journey, building deeper connections through transparency.

Meanwhile, the unglamourous but important FedEx focuses on what it does best – transporting goods across the world. The brand’s Instagram profile is saturated with images of vehicles on the move and happy recipients of packages. By highlighting ordinary people, FedEx tells stories true to their brand. The images show customers behind-the-scenes – no matter how humdrum it might seem.

TikTok trends are proving to be another avenue for brands to show their sense of humour and humanness. Starbucks joined in the ‘POV’ TikTok trend, using it to make fun of the friend who is always late, in this case because they are ordering Starbucks. The beverage brand put its own spin on the meme, proving that brands can leverage viral memes to make statements about their products. 

Brands with the ability to reflect their values online win new customers and gain integrity. So, next time you slip up or need to share some bad news, consider how you might win people over with transparency, authenticity and cultural relevance. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, you could take a light-hearted approach or speak from the heart. In the age of misinformation, honesty and genuine care are perhaps the most powerful tools at your disposal. By being honest, your brand will find it easier to build trust, even in a landscape where distrust is the default emotion. 


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