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Researchers from Boston College and the University of British Columbia have published a new article in the Marketing Review which examines when and why negative reviews can benefit businesses.

The study, to be published in the marketing magazine, is titled “The Advantage of Negative: Social Distancing in Identity-Relevant Brand Negative Reviews” and is written by Nailya Ordabayeva, Lisa Cavanaugh and Darren Dahl.

Managing online reviews is essential for businesses. Most consumers check online reviews before making buying decisions, and seeing just a few negative reviews can hurt sales and other business results. Negative reviews are particularly influential because consumers view them as more authentic and informative than brand ad copy. So, managers naturally worry about negative reviews and try to downplay or downplay them to avoid negative effects. In fact, type “negative reviews online” into a browser search and the top results will include: “Bury negative reviews online”, “How to remove negative reviews online” and “Remove negative content quickly”. Such practices are widely promoted as a marketing solution.

However, this new research challenges the assumption that negative reviews are necessarily bad for business. In fact, it suggests that such reviews might even yield positive results when consumers personally identify with a brand and see facets of their personality or identity in the brand. Ordabayeva explains that “when consumers identify with a brand, they are more likely to scrutinize negative reviews carefully, seeking to protect the brand and, by extension, themselves from negative feedback. In particular, consumers examine reviewers’ social distance from themselves using various demographic, social, and group dimensions to justify rejecting negative reviews from socially distant reviewers. This ultimately protects identity-relevant brands from negative reviews. Dahl adds, “Negative reviews sometimes even yield advantages for brands over positive reviews. Notably, consumers do not review social distance or similarity of reviewers in the same way following positive reviews. They heed these reviews regardless of social distancing, as positive feedback about identity-relevant brands and oneself is always welcome.

Data collected and analyzed in controlled laboratory environments, along with hundreds of thousands of real consumer reviews posted online, confirm this phenomenon. In one study, researchers examine the extent to which real consumers listen to real reviews posted online about popular restaurants that they consider to be identity-relevant. Consumers minimize the usefulness of negative reviews by socially distant reviewers. In contrast, consumers aren’t scrutinizing the social distance of reviewers who write positive reviews.

Another study asked NFL fans, who have a strong personal connection to the NFL brand, about their reactions to a negative or positive online review of an NFL-branded sweatshirt. These fans responded to a negative review quite differently depending on how socially distanced they perceived the reviewer to be. In fact, a negative review by a socially distant reviewer boosted attendees’ interest in purchasing the NFL Sweatshirt by up to 27% compared to a positive review by such a reviewer. This happened because a negative review from a distant reviewer prompted attendees to strengthen their relationship with the NFL brand to protect it from negative feedback.

A similar benefit 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 from a remote user who has expressed consistent negativity in previous reviews boosted consumer engagement with the brand by 6-12% compared to no review. Thus, identity-relevant brand managers might be better off retaining and perhaps even emphasizing negative online reviews (vs. positive reviews or no reviews) among fans of the brand and facing constant negativity from socially distant critics.

These findings have useful implications for marketers who want to effectively manage negative reviews online. Displaying reviewer profiles and review histories on online platforms to highlight social distancing and reviewer consistency can protect and even benefit identity-relevant brands from negative reviews. As Cavanaugh puts it, “Our findings underscore the importance of cultivating consumer brand relationships as a strategy to protect identity-relevant brands and benefit from negative reviews. Thus, it is critical that managers understand the relevance of their brands and strengthen their connection to consumer identity to move more consumers to high-brand segments.This insight is especially actionable in the age of Big Data, when companies can quickly and accurately analyze consumer brand relationships and identify high relationship segments.

Full article and author contact details available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/00222429221074704

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the Marketing Review develops and disseminates knowledge on real-world marketing issues useful to scholars, educators, managers, policymakers, consumers, and other societal stakeholders around the world. Published by the American Marketing Association since its founding in 1936, JM played an important role in defining the content and boundaries of the marketing discipline. Christine Moorman (T. Austin Finch, Senior Professor of Business Administration, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University) is the current editor.

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