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Why Unhappy Customers are Unlikely to Share Their Opinions with Brands

Why Unhappy Customers are Unlikely to Share Their Opinions with Brands

Chris Hydock, Zoey Chen and Kurt Carlson

For a brand to succeed, it is imperative that it understands consumer sentiment—what customers think about the brand and products. Being “in-the-know” distinguishes successful from unsuccessful brands. Brands derive much of this understanding from the information and opinions consumers share with them. Intuitively, one might assume that direct consumer-to-brand opinion sharing is most likely to occur among those with very positive or very negative attitudes toward a brand. This intuition is echoed by managers: In a survey of business professionals that asked about the relationship between customers’ attitude toward a brand and their likelihood to share with the brand, the majority expected a U-shape relationship.

Counter to this intuition, a new study in the Journal of Marketing demonstrates that consumers’ likelihood to share opinions directly with a brand depends on a confluence of psychological mechanisms that result in a hockey-stick-shaped relationship between attitude level and sharing (“__/”). Among those with a positive attitude toward the brand, our research team demonstrates that the more positive a consumer’s attitude, the more likely they are to share their opinions with the brand due to reciprocity norms, explaining the right side of the “__/” attitude-sharing relationship. However, among those with a negative attitude toward a brand, we show that two counteracting factors result in a null relationship between attitude and sharing. First, as attitude toward the brand becomes more negative, consumers are more likely to share due to a desire to vent. Importantly, though, a second factor is relevant when sharing with brands: the attitude object and audience are one in the same (the brand). People tend to avoid sharing negative information with the attitude object because doing so induces social discomfort and guilt. Given that people often anthropomorphize brands, it follows then that unhappy consumers may be averse to sharing negativity with the brand. This aversion to criticize counteracts the desire to vent (explaining the left side of the “__/”). These findings are counter to the U-shaped relationship that is found between attitude and sharing with other consumers (WOM).


We examine the above ideas in a series of studies using diverse methods, including two studies that measure real sharing behavior. Across these studies, we show that consumers who have a greater discomfort criticizing brands are especially less likely to share negative opinions with the brand. Interestingly, we also show that in scenarios where consumers are unable to leave their relationship with a brand, their overwhelming desire to vent can overpower their typical aversion to criticize.

For practitioners interested in understanding consumer sentiment, this work suggests that the information consumers share with brands may be non-representative and positive leaning. By documenting this bias, our work highlights the need for firms to adopt opinion-seeking strategies that minimize consumers’ anticipated discomfort (i.e. their aversion to criticize) or provide sufficient incentives to overcome this psychological barrier. In this vein, one study in our paper demonstrates that significant incentives can motivate those with negative attitudes to be just as likely to share their opinions with a brand as those with positive attitudes—providing a potential, though costly, remedy. 

Read the full article.

Read the authors’ slides for sharing this material in your classroom.

From: Chris Hydock, Zoey Chen, and Kurt Carlson, “Why Unhappy Customers are Unlikely to Share Their Opinions with Brands,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Chris Hydock is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Orfalea School of Business, California Polytechnic State University.

Zoey Chen is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Miami Business School, University of Miami.

Kurt Carlson is Associate Dean, Raymond A. Mason School of Business, College of William & Mary.