Brands Beware! Consumer Discontent is Contagious

Brands beware! Consumer discontent is contagious

Since the inception of corporate marketing, consumers have always been encouraged to be loyal to brands. Consumer loyalty rewards brands with increased profits, allowing the companies to reinvest in product research and enhance service delivery, ultimately leading to improved consumer experience.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that sales and marketing are some of the most resource-intensive divisions in an organisation geared towards driving business profitability. Simply put, consumers have been encouraged and moulded to develop affinity, attachment and, more significantly, “love” for brands. Companies reciprocate by creating beneficial, functional, and aligned products and services with consumers’ cultural and ethical beliefs.

But is that it? Do consumers merely possess the capacity to be loyal and love the brands that serve them?

Not. Of concern, one’s ability to love is as much as one’s ability to hate. This extends beyond a social context and into the spheres of consumer behaviour as well.

A cause for worry is that recent consumer research in the US has shown increased consumer aggression when issues concerning products and services arise. Furthermore, the percentage of consumers who seek revenge on organisations has increased threefold since 2020, with venting via social media as the most common method.

Consider the following classic example of a case study on consumer complaints: In 2009, Dave Carroll and, by extension, his band Sons of Maxwell, posted a country music video on YouTube titled United Breaks Guitars, where he sardonically detailed his experience of United Airlines’ mishandling of his guitar. Long story short, the incident questioned the service quality of United Airlines and caused significant damage to its brand reputation, which many believed resulted in a sharp decline in stock prices shortly after the incident.

Could such pessimistic consumer behaviour and attitude stem from social media influence? Or perhaps it is due to society’s decaying morals? Or is it because brands cannot deliver on their promise, causing dissatisfaction?

First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that consumer awareness has been heralded as a consumer right, which motivates consumers to express dissatisfaction on various communication channels. Such consumer-centric strategies are imperative as they encourage consumers to interact with organisations, enabling real-time responses.

However, it is most concerning when consumer dissatisfaction is expressed through complaints, as it can significantly damage one’s brand reputation. So, what makes a complaint so compelling yet intimidating?

Unbeknown to many, “complaining consumers” is a social phenomenon. When someone makes a complaint to people within their social circle, the most common response is agreement. By nature, humans tend to lean towards consensus in the occurrence of a complaint — individuals feel the need to mirror the emotional state of the people they are interacting with.

Gradually, the social circles that are aware of the complaint expand. Unconnected individuals would develop social connectedness to one another based on discontentment and complaints. This builds negative perceptions towards the brand, tarnishes its reputation, and fuels brand hate. Consequently, such hatred could escalate to the point where consumers punish brands by seeking revenge and participating in boycotts.

So, what can brands do to respond to consumer hostility? A probable first reaction by companies is to introduce mechanisms to facilitate consumer forgiveness, typically in the form of remuneration or a formal apology. However, there is a need to question: “What if consumer complaints represent a complex territory in brand management, requiring advice and strategic insight from the rightful experts?”

Suppose organisations are hesitant to invest in engaging with such strategic customer-centric professionals. In that case, there is a need to heed the wise words of the marketing guru Philip Kotler, who exhorts: “Companies pay too much attention to the cost of doing something. They should worry more about the cost of not doing it.”

Negative consumer behaviour and attitude are intricately woven with brand performance, social media influence, societal dynamics and pressures. Customer relationships are no longer a mere extension of marketing or customer experience. Instead, managing customer complaints has evolved into a task requiring strategic planning, close monitoring, and listening to both brand image and consumer sentiments.

Indeed, brands must recognise that deciphering positive and negative sentiments is vital to their survivability and success. Today’s dynamic business environment, thus, demands that brands appease loyal and dissatisfied consumers. After all, brands can use such challenging circumstances to foster deep yet profound connections with their consumers.

Evelyn Loh Geok Yan
School of Hospitality and Service Management
Email: @email

This article was first published in The Edge Malaysia, 21 August 2023.