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New “Superbreed” of Unhappy Customers Shows No Mercy to Targeted Brands

New “Superbreed” of Unhappy Customers Shows No Mercy to Targeted Brands

Eden Ames

negative feedback

Scholarly Insights: AMA’s digest of the latest findings from marketing’s top researchers

Customer complaints are a fact of life in the social media age. But what happens when they are taken to a whole new level? New research from Journal of Marketing  examines a new super-breed of unhappy customers, appropriately calling them “brand saboteurs.” Brand saboteurs are not just mildly dissatisfied customers, nor are they very dissatisfied customers. These are people actively working to harm your brand. Don’t think you can convert them back either. Brand saboteurs are far past the point of reparation.

In the past, enraged customers were limited in their ability to trash brands, but today’s easy access to viral platforms makes them a legitimate threat to spark a public relations crisis.

In 2009, musician Dave Carroll released a song on YouTube called “United Breaks Guitars” after the airline did exactly that to his own instrument. Four days after the song went live, United’s stock prices plunged by 10 percent, allegedly costing shareholders $180 million. Even after United’s efforts to make amends, Carroll produced two more videos in the same spirit as the first. 


While Carroll’s fame may have helped his attack go viral, other incidents have proven that just about anyone on social media can significantly damage a brand if they set their mind to it.

In the same vein as Carroll, In 2013, 26-year-old U.S.C. graduate Greg Karber launched a campaign against Abercrombie & Fitch after learning of their refusal to carry plus-size clothing and practice of burning (instead of donating) the remains of damaged garments. His video invited viewers to clothe as many homeless people with Abercrombie & Fitch products, using the hashtag #FitchTheHomeless. The movement was a direct attack on a comment made by the clothing brand’s CEO, saying that “….a lot of people don’t belong [in Abercrombie & Fitch’s clothes], and they can’t belong.” Even though the campaign ultimately backfired on Karber when critics accused him of exploiting the homeless, his video made a significant impact in a very short period of time. “Two hours in, it had thirty thousand views, which was more than all my previous videos combined,” he said in an interview with The New Yorker. It went on to garner over 7 million views in its first week after posting.

Greg Karber’s video inviting viewers to make Abercrombie & Fitchthe world’s number one brand of homeless apparel.

Both these Carroll’s and Karber’s cases demonstrate how powerful the consumer voice has become in the digital age. “In a networked, digital world, even one single consumer can cause a brand to lose numerous existing customers and can alienate innumerable potential customers, which can result in millions of dollars of damage to a brand,” write authors Andrea Kahr, Bettina Nyffenegger, Harley Krohmer and Wayne D. Hoyer. Social media in the hands of a brand saboteur is especially  dangerous, since these individuals will not limit themselves to “instrumental attacks” such as negative word-of-mouth or boycotting. Instead, they will take premeditated actions that have the potential to impact a brand on a much larger scale.

The best way to prevent brand sabotage from happening is ensuring that all customer touchpoints leave positive impressions. According to the research, most cases of consumer brand sabotage occur after the customer is consistently met with negative experiences associated with the brand. Monitoring social media may also help managers pick up on potential brand saboteurs early on. Some companies, such as Dell, use algorithms to pick up on negative emotions expressed in social media interactions with the brand. Tools such as this may help managers to curtail the effect of brand saboteurs before significant damage takes place.

Authors Andrea Kähr, Bettina Nyffenegger, Harley Krohmer, & Wayne D. Hoyer offer insights into their recent Journal of Marketing article, “When Hostile Consumers Wreak Havoc on Your Brand.”

Article Citation:

Andrea Kähr, Bettina Nyffenegger, Harley Krohmer, and Wayne D. Hoyer (2016) “When Hostile Consumers Wreak Havoc on Your Brand: The Phenomenon of Consumer Brand Sabotage.” Journal of Marketing: May 2016, Vol. 80, No. 3, pp. 25-41.

Eden Ames is a digital content producer for the American Marketing Association. She may be reached at