What Makes Consumers Want To Sabotage Your Brand?


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20 million YouTube views, $180 million in damages to company shareholders….

This is one of probably the most extreme outcomes of customer sabotage. This happened back in 2009 when musician Dave Carroll had a bad experience with United Airlines. To express his dissatisfaction, he created a video he called “United Breaks Guitars.” The video went viral, and the damage started. United tried to reach out to Mr. Carroll, but their resolution was not satisfactory to the musician; thus, “United Breaks Guitars 2 was created.

While this is an extreme example, brand sabotage is a newer phenomenon, and one to be aware of, especially now with the ease at which social content can go viral.

What is this, exactly? Customer sabotage is more than a poor online review or posting negative content on a user’s (or brand’s) social sites. Sabotage is a deliberate behavior by a consumer to cause harm to a brand. In the case of social media, this could include a call to the consumer’s friends and followers to engage in some type of negative online behavior, create content to go viral and thus spread negative word of mouth at an alarming rate, or other similar activities.

Recently, I came across an example of this happening with American Airlines on Twitter. A young women’s conference was recently held, and a prominent speaker was to address the group of 400+ young women. However, his flight was canceled and he was unable to attend (he ended up giving his speech via Skype).

Twitter took off with posts including this story as well as attendees tweeting directly to American Airlines. The group attempted to mobilize to sink the company’s ratings and spread the story as far as possible. There were calls on Twitter to tweet to the company, post such negative reviews that their online ratings would tank, and otherwise disparage the company through social outlets.


american air 2


The group continued with similar Tweets and even others that tagged American Airline’s competitors to see how they could help or how they would react:


american air 1


Why does this happen, and what’s the difference between a dissatisfied customer and one who wants to sabotage the company’s reputation?

Research conducted at the University of Bern, entitled “When Hostile Consumers Wreak Havoc on Your Brand: The Phenomenon of Consumer Brand Sabotage” looked at the type of consumer who is outside the realm of dissatisfied to learn more about who this type of consumer is and what leads them to the point of wanting to sabotage a brand.

Outside of personality traits, the study describes the process that often leads to consumer sabotage:

  • The consumer experiences a product/service failure, or has a customer experience that conflicts with their perception of how they should be treated (or similar aspects).
  • The consumer internally assesses the significance of their experience to determine next steps.
  • The consumer may attempt to interact with the brand, whether it is online, via phone, or direct mail, and the interaction is not resolved to their satisfaction.

This is the point at which the consumer may attempt to sabotage the brand and decide how to go about it.

Notice the sentence in bold above; this one action (or inaction) may be the trigger point for a dissatisfied customer to make the leap to sabotage. Of course brands cannot stop all disgruntled consumers, but this study sheds some light on ensuring that basic customer service principles are upheld, especially online.

Below are some tips & key takeaways from this study:

  • Be aware of tough customers: employees cannot profile customers or even interact with them long enough sometimes to know if they may become one of “those” customers. However, when it does become apparent that a customer who may be disgruntled may also be one that is likely to cause a stir, it’s wise to take note of that. Watching review sites and social media monitoring data will shed light on a potential issue as it starts.
  • Make sure your brand has strong customer touchpoints: not only is this strong customer service, but it also refers to strong measures put in place to handle customer issues. As mentioned, the point of no return often happens when customers DO try to resolve their issue but it doesn’t work. Customer resolution processes should be air tight. No, you won’t always make every customer 100% happy, but the more you can strive toward this, the better off your brand will be.
  • Ask, ask, and ask again: it’s important to request feedback from your customers, but it’s also increasingly important to follow up after a customer has contacted your company with a problem. A follow up survey is a great way to check in and make sure their issue was handled to their satisfaction. It will be another data point to check your procedures, and will also help you find any holes in the service resolution path.
  • Monitor social media on a continual basis: not only should you have a team monitoring your brand’s social sites on a continual basis to respond to inquiries, handle issues, and engage with consumers, but a strong social media monitoring program should be put into place to monitor conversations about your brand across the entire web. This is a great way to make note of an uptick in negative content or a potential issue as it’s happening.

If, despite taking all proactive measures, consumers attempt to create a social media campaign against a brand, the best advice would be to address it head on. If the company engages in routine social media monitoring, it can be identified and addressed before it gets out of hand. Ignoring it in hopes it will “go away” may not work, especially if the consumer has a strong following on social sites and/or has the ability to gain traction quickly.

This is a new breed of consumers; it seems that social media has empowered consumers to a point where they believe they can control the brand’s destiny. Being aware of this up and coming trend is important – going viral is getting easier and it’s important for brands to be aware of online chatter before it becomes a real problem.


Marianne Hynd
Marianne Hynd is the Vice President of Operations at Ann Michaels & Associates, a customer experience measurement firm. The company specializes in mystery shopping, customer feedback, and interactive engagement kiosk programs.


  1. Just to chime in a bit, customer sabotage, or ‘badvocacy’, isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. It well predates broad electronic communication. It is something I’ve been monitoring for over 15 years.

    Several years ago, I wrote a white paper: ‘The Reverse of Advocacy: Impacts of Customer Alienation and Sabotage’. The polar opposite of advocates, prolific online and offline alienated communicators will typically not tell the company about their complaints but will typically tell many of their friends, colleagues and relatives.

    In the 2011 white paper, data from several studies that underscore the impact of online and offline negative communications was cited:

    – 84% of customers who experienced poor service would communicate that result to others.

    – Nearly one out of two adults (45%) will express their dissatisfaction within one week or less after the experience.

    – 64% of B2C users consider online research to be either essential or very important in making decisions.

    – 48% said they avoided a store after learning of someone else’s problems there.

    Customer alienation can have serious and unattractive business outcomes, irrespective of industry or corporate standing. Companies need to proactively monitor and prepare for brand perception and image attacks that can create negative advocacy, alienation and sabotage within the customer base, and among potential customers and the general public.

  2. It is just normal in human nature to act when upset. I doesn’t matter how many good things you do, just make one careless mistake and boom all the hate will be unleashed upon you. Consumers always assume that product or service they pay will satisfy their needs. Brand maker should be very careful in protecting their names because one mistake might bring them down.


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