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Brand badvocates

May 30, 2011

Passionate consumer criticism

I am interested to know how consumers can contribute to brands in term of co-creating products and generating brand value. However, the negative impact consumers can have on brands are definitely worth looking at and learning from as well. ‘Badvocates’ are people who passionately criticise brands and often transmit their negative experiences and complaints around the globe via the internet.

I elaborate on three cases which clearly illustrate the impact of badvocacy. How do companies respond and what are the key learning points?


2004: An article in Wired magazine shows how bike enthusiast and network security consultant Chris Brennan was able to open an expensive Kryptonite bike lock using a ballpoint pen. Failure to respond immediately lead to the belief that Kryptonite was not aware of the mayhem until about five days later, when an article was published in New York Times and when the company started talking to media. Kryptonite did not comment openly on the finding, but rushed to the market with a new and improved lock system. This response fed negative perceptions and distrust from customers, as rumors and inaccurate information took the upper hand.

What did the company learn from this? A response from Donna Tocci, Public Relations Manager for Kryptonite: “Know who the influential bloggers are in your space and start a conversation. Create a relationship or two or ten” (read the interview and comments)

2009: Country singer Dave Carroll wrote a song about United Airlines, who failed to replace his guitar after it broke in transport. The song was launched online as a viral video (see below) and has now been viewed about 10,5 million times and received 28 thousand comments. After the launch, Dave Carroll’s song became a hit on iTunes and he appeared in almost every American news network (The Times, 2009). United Airlines responded by offering Carroll a monetary compensation, something that was not well received by the critical public. Dave Carroll responded to the offer via an online video in which he requested the offer to be turned into a donation. However, United Airline’s gesture of goodwill (a donation to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz) did nothing to contain the damage (The Times, 2009).

David Erickson summarizes the main lesson learned on his blog: “if you’re a corporation, you’ve got to have in place an overall online communications strategy that utilizes the channels that people are already using, so that in part, you’ll have the infrastructure already in place to respond to any crisis that might arise”.

2011: An article on Marketingfacts (in Dutch) elaborates on the brand bashing campaign against Vodafone Australia. The consumer criticism was the result of a persistent network malfunctioning and a corresponding string of complaints about Vodafone’s customer service. A software engineer responded by launching the website in order to join forces with other unhappy customers. This resulted in e.g. over 15,000 complaints and a video parody (below).

Marketingfacts quotes Vodafone CEO Nigel Dews, as he draws his conclusions about the issues: “We realised that we weren’t listening to our customers enough, particularly our customers in social media, so we weren’t picking up the early warning signs. By then, it was almost too late. Fed up, tens of thousands of subscribers have simply walked away.”

Why such an impact?

How come that a few passionate badvocates can have such an impact on online conversations? Probably because of the proactiveness and passion these people show, and the relevancy of the issues they address. Unsatisfied consumers can identify with this and feel like they are finally being heard. The stage is accessible to anybody willing to make a comment or contribute their story. Furthermore, the most popular badvocate messages often have an element of fun and entertainment, which grasps people’s attention.

How to deal with this?

There seems to be a general agreement about how to deal with these issues, or preferably, how to prevent them: be proactive, scan online conversations and back up corporate messages with actions.

Patrick Barwise, Emeritus Professor of Management and Marketing at London Business School: “Successful reputations are built on customer experience. Those companies that have built strong global brands, such as Apple and Procter & Gamble, have done so by first creating a strong customer promise and then delivering on that promise consistently”. (in Financial Times, 2010)

An article in Forbes (2009) shows how General Motors (GM) and other companies handle badvocacy. GM incorporated a social media team to scan the web, tweet, update Facebook and occasionally give comments on personal blogs. The company tries to build good relationships with critics and encourage brand fans to write positive blogs.

Jeffrey Grau is eMarketer senior analyst and author of the report ‘How Retailers Handle Negative Buzz on Social Media Sites.’ In an article on (2010) he explains that one approach is to stay silent and cultivate customer advocates or brand ambassadors: loyal customers ready to defend the brand when it is attacked. “Some retailers, see it as learning experience and an opportunity to reconnect with valuable customers and reaffirm business values” Grau explains, “They listen to what customers are saying to identify and solve problems before they balloon into much bigger issues.”

This behavior reflects a different mind-set: “Customers are not adversaries but partners to be treated with respect”, Grau explains.

Natasha Fogel, executive vice president for StrategyOne, says “The most successful companies stay ahead of the news and proactively search and respond to relevant conversation.” By maintaining positive relationships with key influencers, companies often see them step up and defend the brand at critical times. (from the PR Measurement Conference, 2011)

My summary of the findings:

  • Continuously scan the media for conversations about your brand or company
  • Show consumers you are listening and that you value them: start conversations
  • Make sure there is a (responsive) platform for complaints, this can prevent customers from taking their complaints elsewhere
  • Identify influencers, both brand advocates and badvocates, and engage with them
  • React to criticism immediately and use the channels that consumers use
  • See criticism as an opportunity to identify and address unmet needs
  • Don’t be too formal, but honest and open in order to generate trust and a personal connection

I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this! Do you have any other examples of badvocacy? Any cases in which companies responded correctly, or completely in the wrong way?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2011 12:45 pm

    Misschien ook interessant! Een ontevreden bekende Nederlander kan veel kritiek losmaken en imago schade opleveren.. Youp van het Hek versus T-Mobile.

    23-10-2010: het begon met deze column in het NRC
    26-10-2010: Marketingfacts over de kwestie
    30-10-2010: tweede column van Youp
    20-11-2011: Youp lanceert een magazine over het topic


  1. Challenges of co-creation « joycediscovers

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