The long-held belief that brand reputations can be destroyed overnight might not be totally true.
Researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that people have an inclination to stand up for their favorite brands when faced with bad news. The key is to make a personal connection with the customer. This defensive instinct is similar to how people stand by friends or family members.
As part of the study, marketing professor Angela Y. Lee and her colleagues set up a series of experiments letting participants weigh in on two brands that have seen their share of controversy: Facebook and Starbucks. It found that when these brands faced controversy, participants not only defended them but also would frequent the site or locations more.
“A brand is very intangible—in a way, the brand goes even beyond the product itself or the actual object,” Lee says. “So from a psychological perspective, it’s interesting to consider the dynamic relationship between a consumer and the brands that they consume.”
In the real world, we’ve seen the study’s findings in action. Remember when the CEO of Chick-fil-A caused an uproar offering his Biblical take on same-sex marriages and people called for a boycott of the chain? What followed was a Chick-fil-A appreciation day that drew thousands to the restaurant, marking a record-setting day for the chain’s sales.
When Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal critical of Obama’s health care plan, Obama supporters organized a boycott. The other side organized a “buycott.” In the end, the upscale grocer’s sales for that time period were up compared to the same time the previous year.
“If you believe that a brand is part of you, and you read something negative about it, how are you going to react?” Lee asks as part of the research. “Are you going to stop using it? Or do you use it even more?”
The study and real world examples show that as long as a brand makes and maintains a personal connection, it can keep its core customers. Ignore your customers, and you might just end up like Saab, Sears and Nokia, all brands that were hobbled in 2012.
Gil Rudawsky heads up the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at email@example.com.