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Brands Beware! Even Loyal Customers May Disengage After Seeing Socially Unacceptable Brand Mentions on Social Media

Brands Beware! Even Loyal Customers May Disengage After Seeing Socially Unacceptable Brand Mentions on Social Media

Daniel Villanova and Ted Matherly

Companies know that driving consumer engagement with their brands on social media is an important part of the modern marketing toolkit. They also know that it’s easier to keep existing users than to acquire new ones. And while consumers can both increase their engagement with a brand or disengage, less is known about the drivers of disengagement.

In a new Journal of Marketing article, we investigate social media disengagement, which is the manifestation on social media of the psychological motivation to distance oneself from a brand. A striking case of this occurs when a consumer unfollows a brand. Understanding social media disengagement is critical because it can undermine the reach of future marketing content. For example, when someone unfollows a brand on Twitter, that consumer is no longer directly reachable by the brand’s Twitter presence, nor are that consumer’s followers, who will no longer see the brand’s content via the consumer’s interactions.

Just as customer retention is understood to have drivers that are distinct from customer acquisition, the reasons why consumers engage with brands on social media may not completely overlap with why those same consumers disengage. We study one potential reason why consumers who are highly connected to a brand may choose to disengage from it: their observation of socially unacceptable mentions of the brand on social media. Socially unacceptable brand mentions are acts of violation of the implicit or explicit rules guiding consumer interactions by an individual mentioning the brand. We propose that socially unacceptable brand mentions threaten the identity of highly connected consumers, with consequences for the brand.


Our study finds that when consumers observe socially unacceptable brand mentions, such as profanity-laden tweets, they become motivated to distance themselves from the brand. This motivation to distance manifests on social media in heightened disengagement intentions (i.e., a desire to reduce posting) and even unfollowing the brand.

The Dangers of Vicarious Shame

Socially unacceptable brand mentions do not affect all consumers equally. These problematic posts have a greater impact on people who are more connected to the brand. They threaten a part of these consumers’ identities and generate vicarious shame. Unlike guilt, which involves a personal sense of wrongdoing and a motivation to atone, shame leads to weakness and incompetence and a desire to withdraw and distance from the situation.

We find that consumers who have integrated the brand into their concept of themselves are more likely to view other people’s socially unacceptable brand mentions as reflecting poorly on their shared brand-related identity. Whereas consumers with weaker self-brand connections can view socially unacceptable brand mentions and move on, consumers with stronger self-brand connections experience vicarious shame when seeing these behaviors.

One of our studies looks at fans of ten Major League Baseball teams that competed in the 2018 postseason and focuses on those who were more likely to unfollow their team when exposed to an increasing number of socially unacceptable brand mentions on Twitter. This was especially the case for fans who were previously more connected to the brand. Separately, in a lab experiment, we show that a more socially unacceptable tweet (compared to a less socially unacceptable tweet) led fans of National Football League teams to feel a greater sense of shame, which drove their intentions to disengage from the brand on social media.

What Brands Can Do

We find that brands can take action to mitigate the risks of disengagement for highly connected consumers. For example, consumers who were strongly connected to various apparel brands saw a socially unacceptable Reddit post. With no additional information, the consumers indicated they wanted to disengage from the brand, but when they were told about the brand moderating and removing such posts, the desire to disengage was reduced, suggesting that active management of the brand’s social media environment is important.

Our study offers vital lessons for chief marketing officers:

  • Be proactive in mitigating the potential damage of socially unacceptable content.
  • Actively moderate posts with socially unacceptable brand mentions to stop consumers who identify with the brand wanting to disengage from it.
  • Educate consumers by explaining why certain social media content was removed.
  • Help consumers become productive members of the community when these clarifications are provided.
  • Produce high-quality content to crowd out socially unacceptable brand mentions.

Social media disengagement is costly to brands and is important for both researchers and practitioners to understand its drivers. While prior research suggests more highly connected consumers are able to maintain positive attitudes toward a brand when they are exposed to negative brand information, our results suggest that socially unacceptable brand mentions may lead to vicarious shame and subsequent disengagement. The insulating effects of strong brand relationships may not be as unequivocal as once thought.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

From: Daniel Villanova and Ted Matherly, “For Shame! Socially Unacceptable Brand Mentions on Social Media Motivate Consumer Disengagement,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Daniel Villanova is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Arkansas, USA.

Ted Matherly is Visiting Assistant Professor of Marketing, Northeastern University, USA.