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Press Release from the Journal of Marketing: Make the Best of Bad Reviews by Leveraging Consumer Empathy

Matt Weingarden

Researchers from Nanyang Technical University, University of Washington, and University of British Columbia published a new paper in the Journal of Marketing that examines “unfair” negative reviews and demonstrates that they can have positive consequences for the reviewed firm. 

The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “Negative Reviews, Positive Impact: Consumer Empathetic Responding to Unfair Word-of-Mouth” and is authored by Thomas Allard, Lea Dunn, and Katherine White. 

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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. These “unfair” negative reviews can have positive consequences for the reviewed firm. 

Using six studies and four supplemental experiments (studying over 3,000 consumers), the 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.

Allard explains that “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.” The first suggestion is to respond 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”). The second suggestion is to spotlight 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).

“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” says Dunn. 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.

Full article and author contact information available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022242920924389

About the Journal of Marketing 
The Journal of Marketing develops and disseminates knowledge about real-world marketing questions useful to scholars, educators, managers, policy makers, consumers, and other societal stakeholders around the world. Published by the American Marketing Association since its founding in 1936, JM has played a significant role in shaping the content and boundaries of the marketing discipline. Christine Moorman (T. Austin Finch, Sr. Professor of Business Administration at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University) serves as the current Editor in Chief. 
https://www.ama.org/jm

About the American Marketing Association (AMA) 
As the largest chapter-based marketing association in the world, the AMA is trusted by marketing and sales professionals to help them discover what’s coming next in the industry. The AMA has a community of local chapters in more than 70 cities and 350 college campuses throughout North America. The AMA is home to award-winning content, PCM® professional certification, premiere academic journals, and industry-leading training events and conferences.
https://www.ama.org/

Matt Weingarden is Director, Integrated Academic Content, a role which includes serving as publisher and managing editor of the AMA's four scholarly journals, as well as managing the AMA's numerous academic conferences and academic community initiatives.