Defensive Branding

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Should brands respond to all negative comments?

The common held response to a question like that is usually a stern and obvious, "yes!" In theory, it makes perfect sense. In practice, what do you think is really going on? From a customer relationship management standpoint, it’s clear that every complaint can best be viewed as an opportunity for a brand to connect to a customer (my often trotted-out line of "real interactions between real human beings" comes to mind… again). The theorists will also push that every complaint is a blessing too. Still, in boardrooms and in hallway conversations at conferences, the brand managers will let you know that not all customers are created equally and neither are their complaints.

Fair or not… it is what it is.

This needs more of a back-story: for decades brands dealt with complaints in a private manner. If things got out of hand, the local newspaper might show up on their doorstep. If the brand was big enough and the complaint matched, they could have wound up on 60 Minutes. None of those scenarios were ideal and the negative word of mouth was powerful. We can probably all recount instances of a local restaurant that never succeeded because of poor service. Things have changed. Social Media has brought brands – kicking and screaming – into a world where they must defend their values (on a daily basis) in many different spaces (Blogs and YouTube to customer review sites and Twitter). Some are coping with this change and encourage the back and forth with their customers, while many other brands either sit on the sidelines or spend their days placing their feet firmly in their collective mouths as they stumble through the process of customer service in a live and real-time world where everyone can witness how the stories unfold. Trust me, regardless of the brand they would much prefer if Social Media went away tomorrow so that they can go back to the good old days of spinning the story, controlling the message and resolving matters privately.

Defensive branding can be dangerous.

Defining the brand experience must evolve with these times. Great brands can no longer be defined as the ones who have a pristine record. More often than not, some of the better brand stories come out of scenarios where the brand is at fault and it’s their redemption that turns the tide (ever-so-slightly). We often prop up case studies of bloodied and beaten brands who have returned to glory as if we were writing a script for the next Rocky movie. Who doesn’t love a great tale of comeback? But, as Marketers, we have to be careful.

It’s all about the brand posture. 

Entering Social Media with a defensive posture ("we’re here to respond to all complaints!" or "we’re here to ensure that if someone says something negative about us, we’re listening!") immediately puts brands on the defensive, and if that’s the posture they create in these digital spaces, that too shall be how their consumers, fans and potential clients engage with them. Undoubtedly, the best brands are the ones that can resolve an issue quickly and effectively, but it’s also true that the brands who make the biggest strides spend even more time (in fact, in the multiples) creating positive branding experiences (valuable content, smart applications, engaging opportunities, etc…). It seems obvious, but we don’t see enough of this.

Yes, brands should do their best to respond to the negative, but they should do even more to not be perceived as being in a constant state of defensive branding. It’s exhausting. For the customers and the brand.


  1. I quite agree, it is better if the company will just try and do the best job they can, and if there is an immediate need to answer, then that’s one of the few instances where a company should respond. Change and innovation is necessary though. If there are a lot of complaints, there is probably a need for change.

  2. “not all customers are created equally and neither are their complaints.” How very true. I am dealing with potential clients scared to death that social media simply opens them up to attack. I’m starting to realize that not all companies, no matter how well suited, have a place in social media. There will always be those that are set in that defensive posture.

  3. Extremely well put Mitch. Brands should relax. After all, how does the saying goes? “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”. See you again soon! ~Paul

  4. Been there my friend. The lucky “ah-ha” moment comes when, after doing a basic search, an executive sees a couple of posts on Facebook. You can see the adrenaline starting to flow… That’s when I sit down with them and start their intro to “Social Media 101”. Good luck!

  5. If you are doing customer service, brand management, or anything else that could affect your image, you have to have a decision tree and escalation path. By this point, I hope we’ve all seen the Air Force blog assessment guide. That provides a perfect starting point for taking your phone, email, etc complaint/praise decision tree and applying it to your social media activities.
    With regard to starting on the defensive, some brands address this by establishing, for example, customer service Twitter accounts that are separate from the logo account, but honestly, don’t we all know what those are? They’re not really customer service accounts. They’re complaint management accounts. Some brands try to not start on the defensive by only having their complaint management accounts interject when necessary and then hope they can get the discussion out of the main spotlight onto a back channel. I’m all for that if that is effective, but if it at all projects the image that they’re only there to mitigate bad press, they’re setting themselves up to only be complained to, right?

  6. It is tricky, but you have to differentiate between the “brand x sux” complaint and the “I had a bad stay at Hotel X” complaint. If it’s simply a random, unsubstantiated comment, then it might not need a brand response; if it’s an actual customer with a real problem—you can work with that. And you can turn the tables on yourself with that concept—if you feel the need to vent your frustration online, be sure you give the brand something to work with ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Knowing how to deal with negative comments / reviews / posts / whatever is an important aspect of “Reputation Management”. Knowing how to encourage and nurture positive comments etc is the flip side of that coin.
    No matter how good you are at doing those two things, it all stems back to the ACTUAL customer experience. Using spin and defensive tactics, no matter how good a company is at them, will never mask sh*tty product or terrible customer service.
    That being said, taking someone’s negative experience and REALLY caring about your brand enough to do something about it (admit and fix your mistakes, send some sort of an offline concession) can turn the tide in the way you do business and the way your company is perceived in the marketplace.

  8. Slow and steady wins the race. I think as marketers we understand that there is a duty to set a pace and at the least, maintain the pace. Geting things to “go viral” and “responding in real time” are the sparkle of social media, not the substance. The tools are evolving, but the best recipe will always involve a long-term plan that allows for modification, but does not live in a constantly tensed position of reacting.
    Great post.

  9. Excellent post Mitch.
    I follow a lot of brands to see if and how they respond to feedback (especially the negative ones). These are brands (small and large) who tout a positive brand experience, but don’t always deliver. Are they still sleeping at the switch? They have monitoring tools (presumably) watching for mentions of products and services, but what is holding back a response? Processes? Approvals? Legal?
    Some brands still don’t get real-time communications. They paint a positive brand, but don’t back it up. And then they wonder why they get hammered in social media circles. Be your mission and back up your values…and listen and respond. It’s not that painful.

  10. Should brands respond to all negative comments? No.
    Take Twitter, which has been described as an ongoing cocktail party, with people breaking off to have little conversations. If you enter a cocktail party and then race around to every conversation to argue with everyone criticizing you, you start to look a little insecure.

  11. As the digital ‘voice’ of both Oscar Mayer and Lunchables (and other high profile brands), I deal with this issue daily. There is no right or wrong answer- but it is true things have changed.
    My favorite approach, as the client is in a panic over a bad Tweet or Facebook rant is to say to them ‘Let’s make this the best problem we have ever had’…I personally like the opportunity kill a consumer with kindness and empathy and let them FEEL HEARD.
    My clients have heard me a million times say ‘have confidence in your product/brand’….and once a polite dialogue is entered into (not for the complainers sake- but more for the 300,000 other eyes on the page waiting to see how the brand will respond….then sit back and let the consumer advocates rise to the defense of the brand. And they almost ALWAYS do.
    Are there times we delete? Block? Yes, of course…but it is a rare rare thing. And I like it that way.

  12. Excellent article, and I hope this makes people pause before immediately responding to every negative comment. The volume of negative comments created by the various forms of social marketing is so large, marketers would need to devote most of their time to peripheral issues — to the neglect of the central brand theme.
    It’s best to wait and see how the rest of the forum, blog or ratings/reviews community reacts to the negative comment. Frequently negative comments will be ignored — or even refuted by other participants. Rebuttals from 3rd parties can be more effective than those from the company being criticized.

  13. You missed out the Cisco response to sical media complaints – scrubbing! Cisco have deleted almost all of the comments re their axing of the flip video on their fbk page, apart from one that reads ‘I heard Cisco were deleting flip comments so I’ve posted this to see what happens’ (v sneaky)! Cisco seem to think that the best way to deal with complaints is to delete them from history, it’s an interesting strategy – in a quick moving world who’ll even notice apart from the handful of complainers?

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