Brand avoidance: Why don’t you like me anymore? Dr Mike Lee on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Brand Resistance
What do you do when consumers turn against your brand, avoiding it on fervently held points of principle?
Use their objections to fuel innovation. And empathise with them. Yes, that’s right – understand the basis for their resistance to your brand, and work with it.
“Brand avoidance, or resistance, is reality,” says Dr Mike Lee, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland Business School.
He defines it as the deliberate resistance to dominant brands by consumers, often for ideological and/or ethical reasons.
“Often the brand being resisted is hegemonic, or dominant. The bigger you are, the more scrutiny you’re placed under – people expect more of you,” he says.
“Normally marketing practitioners think of brands as being an asset. Part of my research is looking at how your brand could become a liability. Today, with social media, anyone can say anything about a brand and reach an audience.”
In extreme cases, brands are so badly damaged they need to be retired – an example is Fonterra’s Sanlu brand, irretrievably marred by the 2008 melamine contamination scandal.
Smart companies understand this, and respond creatively and constructively when they experience brand avoidance.
“Resistance begets innovation,” says Dr Lee. “Brands should really embrace the resistance they get from consumers and competitors because it’s often the impetus that drives innovation.”
He gives the example of McDonalds, who responded to health campaigners by introducing salads, fresh fruit packs, and launching its “Our food, your questions” website. In another ad campaign, it responded to perceptions it was a big multinational sending profits offshore with an ad campaign emphasising its franchise structure and sourcing of local ingredients.
Rather than dismissing avoidance or feeling infuriated by it, brand managers need to put themselves in the resistors’ shoes. “Resistance requires empathy,” says Dr Lee.
Dove took resistance to unrealistic beauty expectations of women and ran a pro-aging ad campaign featuring real, naked older women, rather than photoshopped, younger models. The campaign won multiple awards and boosted sales.
When Cadbury substituted cocoa butter with vegetable fat including palm oil, triggering a wall of resistance on sustainability grounds, Whittaker’s jumped in and presented itself as the more sustainable alternative.
“That was a turning point for them as a brand, and it was purely because they understand the brand resistance to Cadbury,” says Dr Lee.
“Modern day brand management might feel like a minefield,” he says. “Some brand managers might be tempted to hide their heads in the sand. But knowledge is power. So, acknowledge the ugly and understand the bad. Then, turn brand resistance into something good.”
Written by Mike Lee, facilitator of our upcoming course Marketing Fundamentals