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Why bad online reviews can sometimes be good for business

A new study shows that brand recognition among consumers is important in quelling negative online comments.
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Strong brands can trump a poor Google review, says UBC marketing researchers.

Researchers at the UBC Sauder School of Business have released findings that show negative online reviews are not always as harmful as one may typically believe.

Associate professor Dr. Lisa Cavanaugh claims when a consumer personally identifies with an item's brand, certain negative online comments about that product can actually have the opposite effect on the consumer.

“Marketers have generally assumed that when people say positive things, purchase interest increases, and when people say negative things, purchase interest decreases,” said Cavanaugh, who co-authored the study with Boston College’s Dr. Nailya Ordabayeva, and UBC Sauder professor Dr. Darren Dahl.

“But when negative comments come from a socially distant source, a negative review actually increases purchase intentions — and that is a game-changer,” noted the marketing expert.

Cavanaugh said the research reinforces the importance of businesses “forging strong brand relationships with customers,” and cultivating that coveted connection to people’s identities.

"When consumers personally identify with a brand, they see facets of themselves in that brand,” Cavanaugh said in a statement from the university.

“When a reviewer leaves a disparaging comment about an identity-relevant brand, consumers feel compelled to protect the brand, and by extension, themselves, by scrutinizing the source of the negative review.”

Furthermore, consumers weigh demographics and geographic locations of a negative reviewer.

For example, NFL football fans were actually motivated to buy a product such as a sweatshirt if a negative review came from a person showing a different demographic or a distant location.

Similar findings occurred when people were looking at negative reviews for Apple watches and President’s Choice coffee.

Conversely, negative reviews do have a negative impact on a consumer if those reviews come from a person perceived to be socially closer.

While the study found bad reviews may not necessarily impact large brand-name products, the same is not true for lesser-known brands.

For example, a generic toilet brush won’t have people defending it against those negative reviews.

The study was published this month in the Journal of Marketing.

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