Executive summary of “Negative online customer reviews: effects of different responses”

Journal of Product & Brand Management

ISSN: 1061-0421

Article publication date: 16 March 2015


(2015), "Executive summary of “Negative online customer reviews: effects of different responses”", Journal of Product & Brand Management, Vol. 24 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPBM-01-2015-0791



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Executive summary of “Negative online customer reviews: effects of different responses”

Article Type: Executive summary and implications for managers and executives From: Journal of Product & Brand Management, Volume 24, Issue 1

This summary has been provided to allow managers and executives a rapid appreciation of the content of the article. Those with a particular interest in the topic covered may then read the article in toto to take advantage of the more comprehensive description of the research undertaken and its results to get the full benefit of the material present.

Recent decades have seen consumers become increasingly more informed. The Internet and subsequent emergence of Web 2.0 technologies have made it much easier to locate opinions and product reviews to help purchase decision-making. Online word-of-mouth (eWOM) is now a well-used weapon in the consumers’ armory. Access to valuable information is further aided by companies and stores posting details of products and brand on their Web sites.

Firms welcome reviews which are favorable but must also be prepared to expect less positive consumer comments. Unfavorable reviews are inevitable even for high-quality products and services. Individuals have their own reasons for discontentment and are willing to express this via online platforms. Such actions often negatively impact on the purchase intentions of others who encounter their comments. How to respond to negative consumer reviews (NCRs) so that negative effects are minimized is the challenge facing businesses involved.

Different studies note the importance of this, pointing out that sales are affected by eWOM. This results from the impact on consumer attitude, trust and purchase intentions. Negative reviews are more influential than positive reviews, studies note. But contradictory results have also been found. Product type might also be significant. For instance, evidence suggests NCRs are more helpful than positive consumer reviews (PCRs) for utilitarian products. In this context, it is felt that readers will associate an NCR directly to the product. However, NCRs could be less relevant where hedonic products are concerned. Any discontentment will probably result from such as personal preference.

A major difference between convention WOM and eWOM is the anonymity typical of the latter. The weak, or lack of, connection to reviewers means the reader might question source credibility. People are thus compelled to “draw causal inferences” from these communications to assume their motivations. This is illustrated when another consumer defends the brands in the wake of an NCR. If consumers express satisfaction with such product quality, it is deemed “stimulus attribution”. But the theory labels such action as “non-stimulus attribution” when action relates more to external factors. In these situations, readers might suspect the reviewer has ulterior motives and thus be less persuaded by their refuting of claims made in the NCR. Similar reactions are likely for a company rebuttal. Again, defending brand quality will likely be considered as stimulus attribution. But when, say, damage limitation to the brand motivates behavior, the less convincing non-stimulus attribution will probably be inferred.

A recurring claim in research streams is the significance of brand strength. Signaling theory purports that brand name acts as a signal and that:

  • A strong brand is a reliable indicator of quality and performance.

  • Effects from negative WOM are weaker when consumers have existing perceptions of a brand.

  • People are likelier to be reassured by a rebuttal following an NCR when the brand name is strong. Weak brands do not emit the same signals, so less probability exists that the uncertainty and perceived risk triggered by the NCR will be lowered.

  • Reference to independent sources such as experts or consumer publications in a rebuttal can increase both message credibility and its persuasiveness. This applies to both brand and customer rebuttals. Weaker brands are inherently less credible and will therefore benefit most from these third-party endorsements.

Even though brand motives could be questioned, scholars believe that responding to an NCR and giving reasons why the product under fire is of high quality represents the best option. They suggest the impact on uncertainty, perceived risk and purchase intention will be more favorable than offering no response. By doing nothing, companies risk being accused of not taking the complaint seriously.

Many readers place greater trust in reviews from other consumers relative to “brand-generated content”. The usual rationale is that such individuals are not driven by self-interests. Hence, any refuting of an NCR by a consumer should positively impact on reader attitudes and behavioral intentions toward the brand.

Evidence reveals that brand strength tends to moderate this effect, which might be more profound for weak brands rather than strong brands. A PCR will benefit a strong brand but not to the same extent. Brand strength already provides credibility. On the contrary, weaker brands have less reputation to protect compared to strong brands and thus might be more tempted to make false claims. Researchers do point out that the anonymity of a consumer review (CR) can make readers question source integrity. Accordingly, for strong brands, confutation from the brand after an NCR should have a more favorable influence on purchase intention than the same action from a consumer. Generally, though, consumer rebuttal should have a more reassuring effect on a reader than comparative action from the firm following an NCR.

Ullrich and Brunner explore these issues in an online study involving students from a large German university. Females accounted for over 72 per cent of the 446 participants, who were, on average, 23.5 years old. Each subject was exposed to one of several scenarios reflecting different brand strengths, different responses to an NCR and reference or not to a credible independent source. Digital cameras were selected as study product, as they are frequently bought online from consumers who engage in considerable information search from various sources. Preliminary research identified a strong brand and a weak brand, while German consumer magazine “Stiftung Warentest” was selected as the independent source.

Respondents had to purchase a digital camera for a friend’s birthday and evaluate the experience. After this, they indicated their product purchase intention (PPI) and level of involvement in the product category.

Key indications from this study include:

  • Customer rebuttals are the most effective response to a NCR for both strong and, especially, weak brands.

  • Rebuttal from a strong brand should have some positive influence on PPI.

  • Any favorable impact from a weak brand’s rebuttal is minimal at best.

The latter emphasizes the need for managers to engage customers better through both online and offline communications as a means to enhance brand image.

Less expected were findings that:

  • Harm to PPI from an NCR was greater for strong brands than for weak ones. Reader suspicion of a non-stimulus response might partly explain this, as could belief that comments from fellow consumers are more pertinent.

  • Reference to a trusted external source had minimal positive effect on PPI for weak brands, while considerably reducing PPI for strong brands. In the first instance, the rebuttal and/or source might not have been strong enough. For strong brands, customers are likely to question why they would need third-party endorsement, unless source credibility surpassed that of the brand.

Brand managers are urged to monitor CRs and engage with customers online and encourage them to write reviews. The authors believe that persuading early adopters to write CRs can help negate the potential damage of an NCR. Maintaining the health of a strong brand over the longer-term is similarly recommended. Weak brands should aim to build up their strength.

Future research could examine various samples and product categories. Additional investigation into the potential impact of different rebuttals is also suggested along with examining the relevance of different involvement conditions.

To read the full article, enter 10.1108/JPBM-05-2014-0611 into your search engine.

(A précis of the article “Negative online consumer reviews: Effects of different responses”. Supplied by Marketing Consultants for Emerald.)