Race in the marketplace: a look at the viral influence of consumer reviews

Posted on December 07, 2022

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You may have scrolled through a comment section or perused customer reviews while shopping online and wondered to yourself what kind of influence those reviews can have on a company. Furthermore, do those reviews impact a company’s decision-making?

Researchers at UNC Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business and Economics have attempted to answer this question, particularly as it relates to co-branding relationships between established corporations and minority entrepreneurial startups. 

Their work, published in a 2021 edition of Psychology & Marketing, touches on the virtual influence of consumer reviews as well as its impact on the strategic intent of established corporations in these types of co-branding partnerships.

We sat down with Dr. Channelle James, a UNCG Sustainability Fellow, UNCG McNair Scholar Faculty Mentor, and Bryan School Dean’s Fellow for School Climate for a Q&A to reflect on this research she conducted alongside Dr. Merlyn Griffiths, head of the Bryan School’s Department of Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Hospitality & Tourism, as well as a co-author from UNC Charlotte.

Q: How did this topic grab the attention of your research team?

A: During the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I was working on Zoom with my writing partner from UNC Charlotte, Dr. Debra Smith, who is an Associate Professor in Africana Studies and works with African American images in the media. We were working on another project focused on African American women entrepreneurs and the perception of them in the media and Debra found an article on the backlash Target and a new entrepreneur had received because of an advertisement in which an entrepreneur says: “So the next Black girl that comes up with a great idea could have a better opportunity.”

The backlash was fierce and for a few days, we read responses online calling the entrepreneur (Beatrice Dixon) racist. What we noticed most of all is how the comments were anonymous and vicious. And we could see from the comments they were from people who had never purchased the product. 

As we contemplated understanding what was really happening in the case, one day we noticed reviews about the product started to disappear. We checked online at Target and Amazon and the reviews about the branding relationship were gone. Even Trustpilot, an online review company, had taken down any recognition of the feedback. We were devastated because we were ready to talk and write about what the entrepreneur experienced. 

On a whim, we contacted Trustpilot to see what happened. We ended up in contact with the Director of Advertising & Communications for North America, who told us the amazing story of the firestorm faced by Trustpilot because of the negative review comments. On one side there were these horrible negative racist comments about Honey Pot and Target corporation. But on the other side, there were these surprising comments in defense of the company and Target. The director told us they received so many comments that their AI technology could not keep up to filter out the racist comments. Trustpilot then decided to prohibit further comments – but this was after over 17,000 comments had been written. 

We were in luck because after a search for the comments we received permission to use the data in our research. 

All of this is interesting in itself but it also kicked off a new stream of research looking at the experiences of entrepreneurs as they use justice as a part of their brand. Our only problem was that neither of us had experience with the literature on branding.

In came our resident expert on branding, Dr. Merlyn Griffiths. We are now all hooked on this research stream.

Justice is a central part of the work that I do and I am interested in entrepreneurship and how entrepreneurs create opportunities in their communities. Examining a topic like branding and justice can have a great impact on how we understand what entrepreneurs actually provide in communities in addition to economic benefits.

Q: Have co-brand partnerships changed over time? Has the Internet impacted those changes, if any?

A: I think that branding and cobranding have changed over time, mostly in the way that everyday individuals understand the concept of branding. What I know now is that brands are not just created by the companies that profit from them but are co-created with the customers served by a company. What we have found in our research is that the Internet and social media have added a new wrinkle in terms of how entrepreneurs and larger companies brand together. 

Target has reported a commitment to work with small entrepreneurs including women and minority entrepreneurs. Particularly after the George Floyd incident, Target and other companies worked hard to include Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as a part of their business strategy.  It was not that they had not already made efforts to do so, but the Floyd case made the need more critical – everyone was being asked to fight for justice and businesses were expected to also respond.  

But for businesses like Honey Pot, there was always – from the day the company started – a need to advocate for justice. The issue is, however – what is intended with branding and cobranding can be challenged when the Internet and social media are considered. 

In our research, we found that anonymity and views of free speech can have a profound impact on branding relationships. This means there is another level of complexity for entrepreneurs interested in creating justice through their ventures.

Q: Has consumer behavior changed over time in regard to free speech or voicing an opinion about a product or, say, a co-branding partnership? Has the Internet influenced this behavior?

A: Yes. We are in an emerging time in terms of free speech, particularly when you add in the anonymity of social media and online comment areas you have the ability to say what you want with limited consequences.

This means that those who may not have voiced an opinion in the past may feel like they are entitled to do so now.  

So, if a company does something that customers do not like they can go right online and tell them, while never identifying themselves. In the case of Trustpilot, though, the company had to decide if the spread of hatred and racism through their online platform was worth the feedback.  The company has to balance many aspects of public interest.

In this case, Trustpilot, Target, and other companies found that the feedback may not be as valuable as larger public interests and good. 

Q: Did you find that consumer reviews influenced decision-making on behalf of the corporation?

A: Oh, absolutely. No matter if it is a small business or a large company, every business has to listen to its customers.

Social media and technology have made that process easier. If I want to tell a major retailer that I had a bad experience, I do not have to write some long letter or even call them, I can go right to social media and enter my concern. Those companies respond quickly in many cases. Companies try to respond before the story gets ahead of them and other customers on the internet get negative information. The feedback loop seems almost faster than the speed of light.

But just because customers complain does not mean companies rush to act.

We found in examining the case of Honey Pot and Target that there was a commitment to justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Although there was some concern expressed in news articles from both companies, both maintained a focus on providing opportunities for minority customers and supplier diversity objectives. 

Q: Are you planning to advance this or other research in this area?

A: Yes, We are continuing the work on social justice branding, entrepreneurship, and co-branding relationships. 

We hope our research will one day help companies large and small better understand their brands and also build strategies that better serve customers while opening opportunities for diverse suppliers. 


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