Ivey research reveals why some customers seek revenge

Marketers invest a great deal of time, money and energy into making people fall in love with their brands. However, in some extreme cases, old loves can become vindictive. Social media platforms now make it easier to do so publically.

Richard Ivey School of Business professors Matthew Thomson and Allison Johnson, and Ivey PhD candidate Jodie Whelan, investigate the psychological factors of consumerism and have unveiled factors that predict which customers are most likely to seek negative recourse when the brand relationship ends. 

An attachment style is a way to characterize a person in terms of how they tend to feel about and operate in relationships. This research finds that so-called ‘fearful’ consumers, who try to avoid intimate interpersonal relationships and when they do find themselves in such relationships tend to be anxious about them, are most likely to retaliate against companies.

This retaliation takes on many harmful forms, including complaining to third parties, obsessing about wanting to harm the brand, and generally seeking payback against brands.

The Ivey Business School study entitled, “Why Brands Should Fear Fearful Consumers: How Attachment Style Predicts Retaliation” will be published in the October 2011 edition of the Journal for Consumer Psychology.

“Based on the evidence that fearful customers are likely to invest more into brand relationships,” says Whelan, “we suggest that looking for certain signs may predict anti-brand reactions if the consumer leaves the relationship or is left somehow. Those who are likely the most profitable and vocal advocates of a brand are also potentially its worst disparagers if the relationship ends.”

The study finds that two factors mediate the effect of attachment on reactions: threats to consumers’ self-image and the loss of benefits from their relationship. These findings are consistent with the explanation the authors propose: fearful individuals invest in and depend more on consumption relationships and, therefore, lose more when such relationships end.

They also cite several possible explanations for why attachment styles should predict such reactions. The end of a personal relationship is often marked by two kinds of suffering: the loss of self-esteem and the loss of relational benefits. The loss of the brand relationship will be greatest because these particular customers will have made considerable investments in the brand.

“A rather stunning result in this paper,” Thomson adds, “is that a certain type of consumer accounts for almost two-thirds of retaliatory behavior towards companies even though these individuals only account for about 10 per cent of the population.”

Strong “personality” brands specifically create emotional connections where consumers with high attachment styles invest a great deal into the brand and form surrogate relationships. The individual’s psychological background and coping methods are connected to the intensity of their negative reactions.

Newsworthy examples of these retaliations have included social media criticisms, vandalism and even threats to employees. Intense and perceived relationships to a brand’s growing popularity can lead to growing discontent – the same ‘sell-out factors’ that get often associated with successful artists.

“Jealous individuals are more likely to react to relationship threats if they feel that, compared to their partner, they are relatively more involved in the relationship,” says Whelan. “Fearful and hypersensitive consumers may be less likely to forgive even a relatively minor transgression, if it makes them feel they are less valued or likely to be treated poorly in the future.”