Scholarly Insights: AMA's digest of the latest findings from
marketing's top researchers
Customer complaints are a fact of life in the
social media age. But what happens when they are taken to a whole new
level? New research from Journal of Marketing examines a new
super-breed of unhappy customers, appropriately calling them “brand
saboteurs.” Brand saboteurs are not just mildly dissatisfied customers, nor
are they very dissatisfied customers. These are people actively working to
harm your brand. Don’t think you can convert them back either. Brand
saboteurs are far past the point of reparation.
In the past, enraged customers were limited in
their ability to trash brands, but today’s easy access to viral platforms
makes them a legitimate threat to spark a public relations crisis.
In 2009, musician Dave Carroll released a song
on YouTube called “United Breaks Guitars” after the airline did exactly
that to his own instrument. Four days after the song went live, United’s
stock prices plunged by 10 percent, allegedly costing shareholders $180
million. Even after United’s efforts to make amends, Carroll produced two
more videos in the same spirit as the first.
While Carroll’s fame may have helped his attack
go viral, other incidents have proven that just about anyone on social
media can significantly damage a brand if they set their mind to it.
In the same vein as Carroll, In 2013,
26-year-old U.S.C. graduate Greg Karber launched a campaign against
Abercrombie & Fitch after learning of their refusal to carry plus-size
clothing and practice of burning (instead of donating) the remains of
damaged garments. His video invited viewers to clothe as many homeless
people with Abercrombie & Fitch products, using the hashtag
#FitchTheHomeless. The movement was a direct attack on a comment made by
the clothing brand’s CEO, saying that “….a lot of people don’t belong [in
Abercrombie & Fitch’s clothes], and they can’t belong.” Even though the
campaign ultimately backfired on Karber when critics accused him of
exploiting the homeless, his video made a significant impact in a very
short period of time. “Two hours in, it had thirty thousand views, which
was more than all my previous videos combined,” he said in an interview
with The New Yorker. It went on to garner over 7 million views in
its first week after posting.
Greg Karber's video inviting
viewers to make Abercrombie & Fitch the
world's number one brand of homeless apparel.
Both these Carroll’s and Karber’s cases
demonstrate how powerful the consumer voice has become in the digital age.
“In a networked, digital world, even one single consumer can cause a brand
to lose numerous existing customers and can alienate innumerable potential
customers, which can result in millions of dollars of damage to a brand,”
write authors Andrea Kahr, Bettina Nyffenegger, Harley Krohmer and Wayne D.
Hoyer. Social media in the hands of a brand saboteur is especially
dangerous, since these individuals will not limit themselves to
“instrumental attacks” such as negative word-of-mouth or boycotting.
Instead, they will take premeditated actions that have the potential to
impact a brand on a much larger scale.
The best way to prevent brand sabotage from
happening is ensuring that all customer touchpoints leave positive
impressions. According to the research, most cases of consumer brand
sabotage occur after the customer is consistently met with negative
experiences associated with the brand. Monitoring social media may also
help managers pick up on potential brand saboteurs early on. Some
companies, such as Dell, use algorithms to pick up on negative emotions
expressed in social media interactions with the brand. Tools such as this
may help managers to curtail the effect of brand saboteurs before
significant damage takes place.
Authors Andrea Kähr, Bettina Nyffenegge
r, Harley Krohmer, &
Wayne D. Hoyer offer insights into their recent Journal of Marketing
article, "When Hostile Consumers Wreak Havoc on Your
Andrea Kähr, Bettina Nyffenegger, Harley
Krohmer, and Wayne D. Hoyer (2016) "When Hostile Consumers Wreak Havoc
on Your Brand: The Phenomenon of Consumer Brand Sabotage." Journal
of Marketing: May 2016, Vol. 80, No. 3, pp. 25-41.