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As much and as easy as you can love a brand, you can hate it as much and as easily as well. Consumer’s power over brands has increased, and a new super-breed of unhappy customers was born as a result of such power shift. This group is not your typical mildly dissatisfied customers; but they are the hard-core discontented customers who would go do the distance to make brands suffer. They are called brand saboteurs.

New research from Journal of Marketing has examined brand saboteurs as people who actively partake in activities that can harm and shame brands. They do this not   necessarily because they have had a bad experience with a brand; although more often than not it is the catalyst for such a behaviour, but because they have the means and time to make sure underperforming brands get the message that they are not satisfied.

Brands should be wary as these enraged customers are limitless in their ability to trash brands. Considering that access to viral platforms are easier these days, they are in fact a legitimate threat to spark a public relations crisis. It should be noted that a single consumer can cause a brand to lose customers, and can turn away countless potential customers; resulting in millions of dollars in damage for the company.

A case in point, in 2013, after learning that Abercrombie & Fitch refuse to carry plus-size clothing and practice burning (instead of donating) the remains of damaged garments, Greg Karber launched a campaign against the brand through a video with #FitchTheHomeless hashtag; inviting viewers to clothe as many homeless people with the brand’s products. The video was a direct attack on a boastful comment made by the company’s CEO who said that a lot of people don’t belong in Abercrombie & Fitch’s clothes. There were enough reasons to hate the brand, and with one person sparking the fire, it was wrecked collectively by consumers.
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In the local context, we have seen quite recently how one person was able to impact a multi-national corporation on quite a large scale. The consumer raised the question of McDonald’s halal status on social media, particularly in regards to the removal of the company’s quarter pounder burger from the menu. Although the person is not considered a hard-core saboteur, her power in drawing consumers’ attention remains certain. The fast-food giant faced a temporary turmoil just because one person decided to stir things up for them.

Full-Time Saboteurs

What’s staggering about brand saboteurs is that some of them do their stuff full-time. They might have had a bad experience with a brand before; leading them from a basic awareness about the poor service they’re receiving, to a total active approach in accentuating the poor service of the brand to consumers. Their drives to engage in such a behaviour remain up in the air as researches in understanding and examining this new phenomena are still underway.

Theoretically, there are some brand saboteurs out there who are paid by companies to spread negativity about their competitors. This can be seen on a brand’s social media page, particularly in the comment and review sections, where negative comments / reviews are ‘implanted’. Analysing the language and message, it’s rather fair to say that some of the comments / reviews given were put there by dubious users, and not from honest dissatisfied customers.


Brand saboteurs are the amplifier for consumer voice in the digital age. To forward their missions, they wouldn’t settle for “instrumental attacks” such as negative word-of-mouth or boycotting. Instead, they would go beyond in taking premeditated actions that have the potential to impact a brand on a much larger scale. Simultaneously, they have the power to get other consumers to jump on the bandwagon due to their overwhelming influence. 

What’s in for brands? Companies are walking a tightrope in facing brand saboteurs. The last thing a company want would be to fall into a loop brand saboteurs create. Once caught in the loop; as apologetic a brand can be, and as much mitigation are being made, it’s hard to get out of it.
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The best way to prevent brand sabotage from happening is ensuring that all customer touchpoints leave positive impressions. The research from the journal highlighted that most cases of consumer brand sabotage occur after the customer is consistently met with negative experiences associated with the brand. If for example company fails to act after getting complaints from customers - failing to apologise, replace the product, repeat the service or reimburse the customer, brand sabotage is more likely to surface. Commonly, the tendency to sabotage a brand builds over time, so keeping impressions steady throughout is crucial.
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Apart from that, social media monitoring can help detect potential brand saboteurs early on. This is no doubt a concept applicable in crisis / risk management for a brand, where early detection and prevention are better than cure.

This post is an extension of an article entitled ‘New “Superbreed” of Unhappy Customers Shows No Mercy to Targeted Brands’ by Eden Ames from American Marketing Association:

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