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How Negative Company Reviews Can Engender Consumer Sympathy

How Negative Company Reviews Can Engender Consumer Sympathy

Thomas Allard, Lea H. Dunn and Katherine White

Negative online reviews are abundant. Negative reviews generally provide diagnostic information about the inferior performance of the firm, which helps consumers make better decisions about their purchases. Those negative reviews usually lead to adverse consumer reactions such as decreased purchase or customer dislike for the brand. However, not all negative reviews are built from the same cloth. In some instances, the intensity of the negative reviews is not justified given the actions of the firm. A new Journal of Marketing study classifies these negative reviews as “unfair” and demonstrates that they have positive consequences for the reviewed firm.

Across six studies and four supplemental experiments (studying over 3,000 consumers), our research team provides converging evidence that unfairness in negative reviews evokes empathy for the firm from third-party consumers reading the reviews. This empathy is associated with increased purchase and patronage intentions. A study on the content of one thousand 1 – and 2- star hotel reviews from Trip Advisor finds that more than a quarter of these negative reviews contained elements that were perceived to be unfair, offering preliminary evidence about the prevalence of “unfair” negative reviews.


Our findings suggest that unfair negative reviews consistently result in more favorable responses to the reviewed firm than fair negative reviews and, at times, even better than positive reviews. We highlight the role of empathy for the firm as a motivator for increased favorable firm intentions. We also identify how firms can leverage empathy from consumers reading reviews, even for those reviews that do not naturally evoke empathy (i.e., fair negative and positive reviews). First, we show that responding to all reviews in a manner that is more personable in visual appearance and tone (e.g., show your employees, use first names, respond from a person instead of a “brand”) increases empathy and thus positive responses to the firm. Second, we show that spotlighting the employees involved in the creation of the product or service (e.g., employee profiles, “meet your barista,” naming the employee who helped make the product) can increase empathetic responses such as higher sales and overall firm attitudes.

Overall, our research highlights that unfair negative reviews are not necessarily bad for the brand and that firms can learn to capitalize on these reviews. By embracing the reviews, as some companies have done in the past (e.g., Ski Resorts, National Parks, Vienna Tourism all turned ridiculous 1-star reviews into something positive in their advertising campaigns), firms can strategically leverage consumer empathy and benefit from potential downstream consequences. We identify techniques managers can use, such as responding to reviews in ways that increase a sense of personal connection or by bringing focus to individual employees, to increase consumer empathy and ultimately foster more positive responses from consumers.

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

From: Thomas Allard, Lea Dunn, and Katherine White, “Negative Reviews, Positive Impact: Consumer Empathetic Responding to Unfair Word-of-Mouth,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Thomas Allard is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Lea H. Dunn is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Washington, USA.

Katherine White is Professor of Marketing and Behavioural Science and Academic Director, Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.