Pans Prompt Pity

Negative company reviews, when deemed unfair, can spark consumer empathy

With ubiquitous opportunities to rant or rave about consumer experiences of all kind, negative online reviews are abundant.

These one- and two-star reviews of companies, products or services usually lead to adverse customer reactions such as decreased purchases or increased dislike of a brand.

But not all negative reviews are viewed equally.

In some instances, the intensity of the negative reviews is not justified by the actions of the firm.

A study by Lea Dunn, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, shows that negative views deemed “unfair” actually have positive consequences on the reviewed firm by evoking empathy in some who read the reviews.

What unfair reviews do

Online reviews provide diagnostic information about the performance of a company and its products or services. They help consumers make better decisions about potential purchases.

Negative reviews signal that products or services fall short of being acceptable, in the eyes of the reviewer.

Such pans should dissuade consumers from making the same mistakes, full stop. Right?

To find out, Dunn and co-authors Thomas Allard of Nanyang Technological University and Katherine White of the University of British Columbia conducted six studies and four supplemental experiments that examined more than 3,000 consumers in total.

They found converging evidence that unfairness in negative reviews evokes empathy for the firm from third-party consumers reading the reviews. This empathy is associated with increased purchase and patronage intentions.

“Our findings suggest that unfair negative reviews consistently result in more favorable responses to the reviewed firm than fair negative reviews and, at times, even better than positive reviews,” says Dunn.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. In an establishing study of 1,000 one- and two-star reviews on Trip Advisor of top-ranked hotels in Chicago, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Paris and Singapore, the authors found that more than a quarter were perceived to be unfair to the management. This offers preliminary evidence of the prevalence of unjustifiably negative reviews.

How to create empathy

What can companies do to turn unfair negative reviews into a positive?

The study indicates that firms can leverage empathy from consumers reading reviews, even for those—negative or positive—that do not naturally evoke empathy.

According to Dunn, one effective approach is to respond to all reviews in a manner that is personal and personable in visual appearance and tone. Using a first name, responding as an individual rather than a company or brand, and showing pictures of employees can increase empathy and thus positive responses.

Another effective way to evoke empathy is to spotlight the employees involved in the creation of the product or service. This could mean offering employee profiles, “meet your barista,” or naming the person who actually made the product or provided the service.

Some companies already have done this successfully. Toronto’s Drake Hotel, for instance, translated complaints on Trip Advisor about its decor into unintended praise for its hip styling. And Snowbird ski resort in Utah used a one-star review as the fulcrum of a clever ad campaign.

“Our research highlights that unfair negative reviews are not necessarily bad for a brand,” Dunn concludes. “Firms can learn to capitalize on these reviews. By responding in a way that increases a sense of personal connection and brings attention to individual employees, they can increase consumer empathy and ultimately cultivate stronger customer relationships.

Negative Reviews, Positive Impact: Consumer Empathetic Responding to Unfair Word-of-Mouth” is published in the July 2020 Journal of Marketing.

Avatar photo Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array of people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.