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One of my favorite sayings is the English idiom “every cloud has a silver lining.” It belies my optimistic worldview. I am the type of person whose battery recharges itself when I manage to turn a negative cadence into a positive note.
Turning a negative vibe into a positive one is an increasingly daunting challenge for today’s marketeers. After all, we live in a world where reviews determine the commercial value of a product or service. Practically every consumer, when buying a new book, a pair of shoes or a hotel room online, looks at the customer experiences of people they do not know at all. Those experiences of random strangers color our judgment. A five-star review makes us more likely to buy something, whereas one star makes us refrain from buying it. And that is why the negative review is the terror of every marketeer.

It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently

Warren Buffett

The subject of negative reviews has been widely researched in marketing science in over the past few years. As it has also been in the Journal of Marketing, the scientific periodical that has enjoyed a triple A status for years. I found an article with a surprising plot twist: A negative review does not necessarily have to be so negative for a company at all!

The scientists used a whole series of studies to determine that a negative review can actually have a positive effect, as long as the reader of the review perceives the negative character of the review as unfair. The moment the (potential) customer thinks that someone else’s negative review is unfair, they develop empathy for the company. This empathy can then lead the customer to consider buying the product after all; not in spite of the negative review, but precisely because of the negative review. The researchers therefore state that smart companies do not ignore negative reviews, but strategically use them to their advantage (for some examples from the field; see Web Appendix K that accompanies the research). Quite an optimistic view when it comes to doing business!

What marketeers can learn from this Dutch politician

This mechanism, whereby a negative message is seen as unfair and therefore actually evokes empathy, was cleverly used by Sigrid Kaag’s campaign team during the recent parliamentary elections in the Netherlands. At the beginning of the campaign, the politician received an unprecedented deluge of negative messages about her under the offensive caption #KutKaag (read more about sexism in the Dutch elections in this article). Instead of ignoring this negative mudslide, Kaag used the negative messages strategically: She showed that the messages were unfair. Kaag worked hard to make voters aware that the negative messages were the result of a pattern in society whereby female leaders are treated differently than male leaders are. In the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, Loes Reijmer analyzed that the publication of a study on sexism in the political arena carried out by the Groene Amsterdammer magazine and Utrecht University, was the game-changer for Sigrid Kaag. The results of the research revealed that #KutKaag was part of a system. This allowed Kaag to literally address unfairness and gradually the awareness of that unfairness penetrated the minds of Dutch voters. That unfairness then morphed into feelings of empathy for Ms. Kaag.

The result: Sigrid Kaag became one of the winners of the election.
So, learn from science and from the good example of Sigrid Kaag. When faced with negative reviews, don’t just crawl under a blanket and pretend they don’t exist. Don’t go full-throttle on the defensive either. Just prove that the negative reviews are not fair and win back the hearts and minds of people.

About this column

In a weekly column, written alternately by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugène Franken, Katleen Gabriels, Bert Overlack, Hans Helsloot, Colinda de Beer and Bernd Maier-Leppla, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.