Managing online reviews is critical for businesses. Most consumers consult online reviews before making purchase decisions and seeing just a few negative reviews can damage sales and other business outcomes. Negative reviews are particularly influential because consumers view them as more authentic and informative than brand advertising copy. Thus, managers understandably worry about negative reviews and attempt to downplay or minimize them to avoid negative effects. In fact, type “negative online reviews” into a browser search and top results will include: “Bury Negative Reviews Online,” “How to Remove Negative Online Reviews,” and “Delete Negative Content Fast.” Such practices are prominently promoted as a marketing solution. However, new research challenges the assumption that negative reviews are necessarily bad for business.
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A new Journal of Marketing study suggests that negative reviews may not always be detrimental to brands. In fact, they might even yield positive outcomes when consumers personally identify with a brand and see facets of their personality or identity in the brand. When consumers identify with a brand, they are more likely to scrutinize negative reviews, seeking to protect the brand and by extension themselves, from negative feedback. In particular, consumers scrutinize the social distance of reviewers to themselves using various dimensions (demographic, social, group) to justify dismissing negative feedback from socially distant reviewers. This ultimately protects identity-relevant brands from negative reviews. It sometimes even yields upsides for brands relative to positive reviews. Notably, consumers do not similarly scrutinize reviewer social distance (or similarity) following positive reviews. They heed such reviews regardless of social distance because positive feedback about identity-relevant brands, and self, is always welcomed.
Data collected and analyzed in controlled lab settings, as well as hundreds of thousands of real consumer reviews posted online, provide support for this phenomenon. In one study, we examine the extent to which real consumers listen to actual reviews posted online about popular restaurants that they consider to be identity-relevant. We find that consumers downplay the usefulness of negative reviews by socially distant reviewers. In contrast, we find that consumers do not scrutinize the social distance of reviewers who write positive reviews.
In a different study, we survey NFL fans, who have a strong personal connection to the NFL brand, about their reactions to a negative or a positive online review of an NFL-branded sweatshirt. We find that NFL fans responded to a negative review quite differently depending on the social distance that they perceived with the reviewer. In fact, a negative review by a socially distant reviewer boosted participants’ interest in purchasing the NFL sweatshirt by up to 27 percent relative to a positive review by such a reviewer. This occurred because a negative review from a distant reviewer prompted participants to strengthen their relationship with the NFL brand as a way to protect it from negative feedback.
A similar upside of negative emerges in another study when Canadian respondents read either a negative review or no review of President’s Choice, a beloved packaged coffee brand in Canada. Seeing a negative review by a distant user who expressed consistent negativity in prior reviews bolstered consumers’ interest in the brand by six to 12 percent compared to seeing no review. Thus, managers of identity-relevant brands may be better off keeping and perhaps even emphasizing negative online reviews (relative to positive or no reviews) among brand fans and when faced with consistent negativity from socially distant reviewers.
Our findings have useful implications for marketers who wish to effectively manage negative online reviews. Displaying reviewers’ profiles and review histories on online platforms to highlight reviewers’ social distance and consistency may protect and even benefit identity-relevant brands following negative reviews. Our findings further emphasize the importance of cultivating consumers’ brand relationships as a strategy for protecting identity-relevant brands and benefiting from negative reviews. Thus, it is critical for managers to understand their brands’ relevance and strengthen their connection to consumers’ identities to move more consumers into the strong-brand-relationship segments. These insights are especially actionable in the age of big data when companies can quickly and accurately analyze consumers’ brand relationships and identify strong-relationship segments.
From: Nailya Ordabayeva, Lisa Cavanaugh, and Darren Dahl, “The Upside of Negative: Social Distance in Negative Reviews of Identity-Relevant Brands,” Journal of Marketing.
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