Negative Vibes: How Negative Press Can Fuel Your Marketing Efforts

Negative feedback and tough backlash are common encounters for any brand out there. No company can be all things to all people, so when brands undertake a new initiative, change up their tactics, or simply operate in their day-to-day, it’s safe to say someone will have something not nice to say. A great communications team can help you navigate this turbulent space and know when to react, when to stay silent and even when to lean into the criticism.

Target, for example, has a reputation for being a family brand that markets to a large audience of diverse backgrounds. In 2018, the company issued an apology after a customer posted the only Father’s Day card featuring a black father with the term, “Baby Daddy” across it. The negative backlash for the product made an impact, and Target removed all of the cards from its stores, issuing an apology that they made a mistake. If a message or piece of marketing material hurts a portion of your brand’s audience or goes against the company’s core values, this is a time to take responsibility, apologize and do everything to rectify the mistake. 

On the other hand, some brands get negative backlash for decisions that are generally wholesome, giving them a unique opportunity to lean into the bleak commentary. Take Under Armor’s “I WILL WHAT I WANT” campaign. The campaign ultimately takes that negative feedback and transforms it into an inspiring and empowering message. The brand juxtaposes Misty Copeland’s mesmerizing dance skills with distasteful put-downs she battled throughout her career and Giselle Bündchen fighting off the social media noise that surrounded her partnership with the company. These advertisements embrace a hardship that many individuals can understand and aspire to overcome, quieting the negative noise around you. Under Armor realized that an authentic connection to its audience is a key part of brand loyalty and awareness. In fact, following the campaign, Under Armor surpassed Adidas and moved from the number three spot in the U.S. sportswear market to number two. 

Another brand who took its criticism to heart was Dominos. After receiving negative reviews, the company decided to change their entire product and admitted that the food needed an upgrade to meet their quality values. Rather than arguing with customers’ opinions or going point-for-point on criticism, Dominos took the feedback to heart and sought a complete transformation. Through media initiatives showing real employees fighting to change the brand’s pizza quality, Dominos saw major sale hikes with a 14.3% increase in first-quarter same-store sales.   

Leaning into the negative is not the right path for every brand and every situation, but there are many instances where the strategy holds weight. Take this example of one of the arguably best executive interviews of all time

Spirit Airlines had just been ranked the worst airline in the industry by Consumer Reports. Problems with the airline included minimal legroom and charges for little things like a bottle of water. Rather than run from the problem, Spirit’s communications team pitched and secured an interview for CEO Ben Baldanza with the national news talk show, “CBS This Morning.” 

Baldanza is flawlessly media trained. He smiles and jokes with the reporters. He concedes on points about legroom and airline snacks rather than fighting them. With ease, he repeatedly circles the conversation back to Spirit’s winning feature: price.

Target, Under Armor, Dominos and Spirit Airlines all have lots to teach us on how to handle negative press and customer feedback. 

Taking Action 

First and foremost: listen to your customers. While not every brand will pursue a complete brand refresh as a result, sometimes small tweaks in your product or service can yield big results. Having a social team listening for and analyzing community feedback is critical to garner information and engage in conversation. 

Businesses should also avoid falling into the trap of going toe-to-toe with negative reviews. Notice that none of the companies highlighted here became angry or argued with customers. Target apologized. Under Armor overlays criticism of Copeland and Bündchen with powerful video that stands in opposition to those words. Dominos professed that their customers were right and completely rebranded. Spirit Airlines conceded on all problematic points about themselves yet owned the conversation about their true brand identity. Resist the temptation to become combative and instead analyze the right way to insert your company’s voice into the conversation. 

Finally, when the situation is right, develop a strategy to turn negative feedback on its head by leaning in. This local New York sandwich shop, for example, found themselves featured in The Atlantic and dozens of other high-traffic websites like Tumblr for their brilliant response to a one-star Yelp review. 

Bad reviews and negative feedback often require carefully planned responses. Having a communications team who can help you identify, respond to and engage with these conversations is the best defense and, more often than not, an opportunity to propel your brand into larger conversations that win loyal followers and maybe even a little notoriety.