United breaks guitars. Disgusting Domino’s. The exploding Galaxy Note 7. Starbucks’s race row. #DeleteUber. Gillette’s misplaced belief on the best a man can be. These are just a handful of examples of branding crises playing out on social media.
It usually starts with a localised problem, or even with good intentions that backfire. At some point, the issue catches the attention of social media users. There, through the ease with which messages can be composed and published, and the power of the network, the issue gets widespread attention, and turns into a firestorm. Sometimes, these crises disappear as quickly as they started. Other times, they linger for a long time. But do they have an impact beyond all the social media noise?
Researchers Nele Hansen, Ann-Kristin Kupfer and Thorsten Hennig-Thurau investigated the short vs long term effects of social media crises in terms of brand perceptions and consumers’ memory of the problems that triggered the crises. Their paper reporting on the findings from this very interesting research is entitled “Brand crises in the digital age: The short- and long-term effects of social media firestorms on consumers and brands”, and was published on the International Journal of Research in Marketing. At the moment of writing, the article is available via a paid gateway, only. Though, you can try to request a copy from the authors on Research Gate.
Hansen and her colleagues found that social media crises do have significant short and long terms effects on the brands at the centre of the conversation. Specifically, they found that among the brands studied “58% suffer from a decrease in short-term brand perceptions, and 40% suffer long-term negative effects” (page 557).
The researchers then set out to identify the factors that are most likely to amplify the effects of a social media crisis, using the following model:
In terms of the impact of different causes, the researchers found that crises originating from product or service failures were the ones with most potential to catch consumers’ attention, to become embedded in their memories and, hence, to have a long-term, negative impact on the brand. One example of this would be the Domino’s crisis. Social failures, like that experienced by Starbucks, were very likely to be remembered, though they did not necessarily lead to long-lasting effects. Moreover, crises with a vivid element, like the images of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 on fire, were associated with strong short-term negative reactions. They were remembered in the long-term, but the negative effects did not necessarily persist.
Regarding the impact of the social media furore on consumer memory and brand perceptions, Hansen and colleagues found that a high volume of tweets helped amplify the negative effects of the crises, in the short term as well as the long term. Also, the longer the conversations lasted on social media, the higher the likelihood that the crises would stay in consumers’ memories and be remembered in detail. However, the breadth of coverage (e.g., whether it had also been discussed on traditional media) had no significant effect.
This research is bad news for those that thought (or hoped) that social media conversations were just a whole lot of hot air, with no meaningful consequences. They have been proved wrong! Not only do social media crises affect the bottom line in the short term as well as the long term, but the very characteristics of social media channels help make the crises bigger, more vivid and longer-lasting. This means that it is extremely important to detect any problems with the brand early, and to act decisively.
Moreover, the research has shown that not all crises are the same. Different types of triggers have different effects on consumer memory and brand perceptions, and the short vs the long term. Hence, the response needs to reflect the source and type of the crisis.
The one thing that I think that this study missed is the possible moderating effect of the type of brand or product. I.e., why do some brands like Facebook, RyanAir or, indeed, Donald Trump seem able to withstand any crisis, no matter how big or how dark; while others never fully recover?