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Leon Kaye headshot

Juul: When an Apology Makes a Crisis Worse

It's rare when a corporate leader apologizes for harm a product caused. But the CEO of Juul faces more headaches as his words come across as inauthentic.
By Leon Kaye

In case you missed it late last week, we saw a rare case of a corporate leader making an apology for the harm a product caused. The apology came straight from the CEO of Juul, Kevin Burns, and not from the company’s communications department. Well, sort of.

“First of all, I’d tell them that I’m sorry that their child’s using the product,” Burns said to a CNBC film crew during an interview for a documentary aired last night that covers the rise of vaping across the U.S.

Unfortunately for Burns and his company, the apology came with a caveat that only incensed Juul’s critics even more.

“I hope there was nothing that we did that made it appealing to them,” he continued.

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, didn’t mince any words:

“Once again, Juul is following the tobacco industry’s playbook: Proclaim loudly that they don’t want kids to use their product, while never admitting that their marketing targeted and attracted kids. Like its partner Altria, Juul still refuses to admit that the company’s marketing targeted kids or has played a major role in youth use of its e-cigarettes—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

Myers pointed out common criticisms of Juul, including allegations that the company used “sleek” marketing tactics which showcased sweet-tasting flavors that appealed to teens—and hooked them with high doses of nicotine that researchers say come with a bevy of health risks. Meanwhile, despite Juul’s rapid pivot and increased news about the risks of using e-cigarettes, teen vaping continues to surge across North America.

Part of why Juul and the tobacco giant that invested heavily in the startup, Altria, are now grappling with this mess is because the companies’ founders focused so much on the products’ perceived innovation without anticipating any negative impacts.

“Juul’s damage was accelerated by its rapid scale,” Barie Carmichael, author and Batten Fellow of the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School, told TriplePundit earlier this year.

The company's founders said they wanted to find a healthier alternative to smoking for adults. The problem, however, was that teens took to Juul like wildfireand it turns out the brand’s nifty and flavorful products contained way more nicotine than conventional cigarettes. The company has since changed its marketing tactics, but so far, it has not been enough to satisfy parents, public health advocates and, now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Meanwhile, many of Juul’s loyal customers have not been pleased with the changes either. 

The bad news for Juul will most likely continue to pile on. As a statement issued yesterday by the FDA reads:

“While certain ENDS [electronic nicotine delivery systems] products may hold some promise in helping addicted adult smokers transition away from combustible tobacco to a potentially less harmful form of nicotine delivery, these products—like all tobacco products—pose risk, and should not be used by kids.”

And therein lies Burns’ problem: His half-baked apology comes across as insincere. At the same time, he presented his company’s legal and communications team with even more headaches due to a comment that comes across as acknowledging that all that youthful, lifestyle-oriented marketing could have lured more nicotine addicts after all.

Meanwhile other companies are fleeing the brand, along with similar products, in droves. Retailers including Walgreens and Walmart have ceased selling e-cigarettes, and San Francisco has banned their sales altogether.

Burns’ apology, along with the CNBC documentary covering teen vaping, together make it far more difficult for Juul to salvage its reputation. And as corporate apologies go, Burns’ attempt falls flat for its inauthenticity—akin to those airline apologies we’ve long rolled our eyes at: “We’re sorry for any inconvenience your delay may have caused.”

As investigations and even lawsuits continue to mount, Burns will most likely regret he ever uttered those words.

Image credit: Itay Kabalo/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye