To succeed in a divisive climate where rejecters and haters have set their minds against a brand, TRA’s Colleen Ryan says marketers have to understand the context-related triggers responsible for such negative views. This is part of an ongoing ‘The art of knowing people’ series with TRA that aims to challenge conventional thinking and better understand consumers, markets and cultural trends in Australia and beyond.
Increasing polarisation in society is due to decreased trust in brands, institutions, media and government – alongside economic pessimism, systemic inequality and a lack of shared identity, according to Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer.
While trust in businesses remains relatively strong, the climate of polarisation still impacts business by affecting people's state of mind and therefore responses to companies.
Traditionally, applied behavioural science has been the key driver of influencing behaviour and choices. By making things easy, designing choice architectures, creating habits and using social norms, marketers shape consumer behaviour. However, these tactics assume people are either willing, ignorant or neutral towards the desired behaviour.
This is why using scarcity bias to offer a time-sensitive offer to someone angry at your business is unlikely to work. Or telling someone against vaccines that you have created a pop-up clinic to make it easy to get a jab.
A polarised environment has increased the number of people who fall outside the willing or neutral categories. Why? Because it has amplified responses to negative experiences, tolerance of uncertainty, and information processing, leading to a surge in disgruntled customers and brand detractors. This phenomenon is evident in the rise of online outrage and cancel culture.
Ignoring those whose mind is set against your brand works when economies are growing. But what about in a recession when disposable income is shrinking and growth is harder to find? Imagine what converting 20% of your rejecters and haters could do for the bottom line.
One outcome of growing polarisation is the increasing academic interest in changing people's minds. While most academic research focuses on social and political issues, there are valuable insights from cognitive science that can be applied to business.
Context is an influential frame when people set their minds against something. For brands, there are four context-related triggers responsible for negative, polarised views. Each requires a distinct approach to addressing the problem because it stems from a different human factor:
- Experiences – We remember how our negative customer experiences made us feel
- Rumour and gossip – We listen to bad press whether true or false
- Otherness – We don’t like what is unfamiliar when we are risk averse
- Belonging – We align with groups when we feel alienated or lack control
The first two of these account for a significant proportion of what sets peoples’ minds against brands.
A bad experience is an emotional experience. Anger, frustration, plus loss of self-esteem or feeling like a victim, are powerful emotions that embed the memory of the experience. Emotional hotspots distort reality, so the memory will not be an exact replica of the event. The challenge for brands is that unresolved memories do not go away; instead, they fester and resurface when triggered.
The way to change a mind set against you because of a bad experience is to resolve the emotional baggage. An apology must be authentic by acknowledging their individual pain (people are not interested in the pain of others), accepting their reality, i.e., their version of the experience without refuting them, removing any sense of victimhood by taking full responsibility for the problem and committing to action. That way, you shift the power balance – it’s on the brand to do better.
When it impacts a big or high market share brand like Qantas, people may not have the choice to avoid the brand completely. But resentment and erosion of goodwill damages the brand, even more so when people feel that they are forced to continue to be a customer. Qantas recently offered a token gesture of A$50 off a customer’s next flight in response to complaints. This action meets none of the criteria described above and, in the long term, will have very little positive impact on the customer’s memory of the experience and the outcome.
Gossip is a hardwired behaviour that works to keep members of our social groups in check by letting us know who can be trusted. In our modern world, media has extended the range and scale of gossip – fake news – but it still arises from a primitive instinct.
Australian retailer Harvey Norman recently faced a backlash when its chairman called for wage freezes while announcing substantial profits. It’s not the first time a senior executive has put their foot in their mouth but generally, a slick PR response deals with the fallout efficiently. Not this time. Harvey Norman tried defending itself by ignoring, blocking and attacking, and belittling an employee. This response only served to further fan the fires of anger and distrust.
Here, the dominant hurdle to overcome for brands is trust. When gossip takes hold, the source of trust has become something other than your organisation or brand and is often non-specific (people can’t remember where they heard the negative perspective). This often makes people feel as if they have heard this gossip in many places, amplifying it through confirmation bias and giving it more credibility. Confirmation bias is why once you've heard a rumour, read a bad review or seen some bad PR, you see evidence of it everywhere.
The Harvey Norman response made no attempt to regain the source of trust, so the gossip intensified and led to rapid spread of information – some factful, some less so – feeding the flames of confirmation bias.
There is one job to be done to change a mind that has been set against you by gossip – you have to become the source of trust, even if that means putting your hand up to take responsibility for some negative behaviour. A master class in applying these principles is Swedish dairy company, Oatly.
Oatly has been called out on a number of fronts. Its response has been to reorient the narrative to repossess the source of truth. It owned up and created a website – fckoatly.com.
The Oatly site publishes negative stories about Oatly and its corporate behaviour and invites you to click on an “I hate Oatly” button. It then provides information of what action it has taken. This is brave brand behaviour and it is also very smart. (Totally hate this approach? Try fckfckoatly.com.)
The rise of polarisation in society casts a shadow over businesses and brands. Ignoring the increasing number of rejecters and haters, especially during economic downturns, will prove costly. Even businesses enjoying higher trust levels may not be immune to the shadowy halo effect of polarisation which sets minds against you.
To succeed in this divisive climate, you need to understand the causal triggers that has set a mind against your brand, take into account the human factors and apply the strategy that fits the context. You probably won’t feel warmly towards your haters – they may even irritate the hell out of you. But ignore them at your peril – your competitors will be more than happy to look after them.