Let's start with what we know: marketing researchers have found that two distinct types of customers respond in starkly different ways to negative publicity.
Customers with a low commitment to a brand see negative information as revealing about a brand's true colors. For instance, in the 1980s Ford and Chevy's quality and safety problems motivated customers with a low commitment to American-made cars to switch to Japanese models. Those customers became convinced that the American car was a piece of junk, and many weren't afraid to say so.
Customers with a high commitment to a brand respond differently to negative publicity. For them, negative press reveals little truth about their brand. In fact, many loyalists respond to bad press by ferociously defending the brand, effectively increasing their loyalty to the product. Again, we saw this in the 1980s with the American auto. Despite Ford and Chevy's problems, those loyal to the American brands not only kept buying the cars - they actually stood up for the brand, and found ways to refute the claims of shoddy quality.
Research has shown that bad publicity isn't always a bad thing for a brand. In fact, it can make high-commitment customers even more loyal. But how does a company woo the low-commitment customers back? And how does it assure the high-commitment customers that the bad news is nothing to worry about?
Marketing experts use two approaches. For low-commitment consumers, they employ a method called "counter-argumentation." This strategy has the company refute the bad press by calling its truthfulness and accuracy into question. For instance, if Ford and Chevy had used counter-argumentation, they may have brought their low commitment customers back with an advertising campaign that illustrated how the press inaccurately and in a biased manner depicted their cars. Such an approach directly taps into the low-commitment customer's tendency to process information more objectively.
For high-commitment customers, the approach is far different. Marketers convince this customer group by arguing that the brand in question is in fact no different than the other brands. Ford and Chevy, for instance, would have told their high-commitment customers that American-made cars are no different in quality than Japanese cars. Such an approach complements the high-commitment consumer's impulse to defend the brand and argue against the claims' validity.
Marketers have found that two customer groups - those with high commitments and those with low commitments - respond very differently to bad press. Experts have also discovered that countering bad press is a tactic that must be honed differently for each of these audiences.
Ironically, however, much of the practicing business world takes a homogeneous approach to negative publicity. But by carefully considering what marketing researchers have discovered, these same companies may more effectively turn a sour situation into a sweet one.