Anger with Beloved Brands Causes Consumers to Seek Revenge

A bad experience with your favorite brand can be just as likely to cause you to seek revenge as an emotional breakup, according to new research exploring brand loyalty.

And, with the power of the Internet and social media, that revenge can come at a high cost to the company you’re seeking to punish. In fact, researchers are suggesting that the smartest thing your poorly behaved former “love” could do is introduce you to the competition.

"Customers who were once enthusiastic about a brand may represent a headache for the associated firm beyond the lost revenue of foregone sales because they sometimes become committed to harming the firm," according to the study authors.

It seems as though there tends to be a thin line between love and hate when it comes to brands—online forums are teeming with customer complaints from people who once loved or were loyal to particular brands but now strongly oppose them. "I used to love (name of store redacted), let me tell you all why I plan to never go back there again; I hate them with a passion now," writes one unhappy former customer, for example.

According to the study authors, some people identify so strongly with brands that they become relevant to their identity and self-concept. Thus, when people feel betrayed by brands, they experience shame and insecurity. "As in human relationships, this loss of identity can manifest itself in negative feelings, and subsequent actions may (by design) be unconstructive, malicious, and expressly aimed at hurting the former relationship partner," the authors said.

The study suggests that just like in a bad personal relationship, the best approach to ending the relationship may be a clean break, rather than a long goodbye.

"Rather than trying simply to win customers back, which may only exacerbate the situation, companies may want to explore responses that promote forgiveness, indifference, or effective disengagement," the authors said.

Sometimes a company may want to help embarrassed customers move on—even if it means directing them to a competitor.

"The sooner the customers are happily involved with a new brand, the faster one might expect damage to their self-concept to be repaired and the faster the motive to harm the offending firm might dissipate," the authors said.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Consumer Research, was conducted by Allison Johnson (University of Western Ontario), Maggie Matear (Queens University, Kingston, Ontario), and Matthew Thomson (University of Western Ontario).