Special Session Summary Making Good of Doing Bad: Negotiating Transgressions in Consumer-Product Relationships


Susan Fournier and S. Adam Brasel (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Making Good of Doing Bad: Negotiating Transgressions in Consumer-Product Relationships", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 102-104.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 102-104



Susan Fournier, Harvard University

S. Adam Brasel, Stanford University


Making Good of Doing Bad: Negotiating Transgressions in Consumer Product Relationships

The study of relationships is increasingly important to marketing theory and practice, yet research on consumer product and brand relationships has been limited. Most research has adopted a static perspective on what is a developmental and complex phenomenon, and when developmental dynamics have been considered, research has favored positive interventions that increase the strength of the relationship. Work focusing on mistakes that companies or brands inevitably make has been rare in consumer relationship research. While transgressions and service recovery have been a central focus in service marketing work, these topics have received little attention within the consumer relationship domain.

Attempting to address these deficiencies in the consumer relationship literature, this session brought together ten researchers whose work examines the effects of transgressions on a range of consumer-brand, consumer-product, and consumer-service relationships. Using a variety of product contexts and methods, this session sought to raise consciousness about the positive and negative effects that transgressions can have on relationship development dynamics, and increase sensitivities to the moderating factors that can advance relationship theory.

The first paper, by Michael Brady, Michelle Roehm, and J. Joseph Cronin Jr., addresses transgression recovery. The accessibility-diagnosticity model is used as a framework to understand how transgressions influence customer perceptions for firms with varying levels of brand equity and tangibility. The results of two independent studies indicate that brand equity offers useful recovery benefits, these benefits are most pronounced when the product is intangible, and that brand equity acts on perceptions of the transgression itself.

The second paper, co-authored by Jennifer Aaker, Susan Fournier, and S. Adam Brasel examines how transgressions affect the development of relationship strength, and how brand personality moderates that effect. The findings from an intensive two-month longitudinal study support the general hypothesis that while brands characterized by sincere personality traits enjoy faster and stronger relationship growth than brands characterized by exciting traits, a transgression event alters this pattern. In fact, transgressions injure the sincere brand far more than they affect exciting brands. Moreover, the sincere brand is less able to recover, while the exciting brand can capitalize on transgressions to reinvigorate relationship development.

In the third paper, by Linda Price, Eric Arnould, and Fleura Bardhi, depth-interview are utilized to examine what happens to consumer-brand friendships in the event of a betrayal, and investigate betrayals at the hands of both brands/products and consumers. Results show that betrayals are almost inevitable, but that betrayal type varies with the length and strength of the relationship. The type of trust established also affects the resilience of relationships to betrayals by either party. While betrayal was more vivid and emotional for close consumer relationships, it was less likely to result in relationship termination.

Leading the discussion was Kay Lemon, a contributor to the service failures and recovery literature. The intent was to push the session to reveal incremental theory contributions made apparent by examining a similar conceptual issue in differing application contexts, thus building bridges between disciplinary domains. Also, numerous avenues for future questions and research were presented.



Michael K. Brady, Boston College

Michelle R. Roehm, Wake Forest University

J. Joseph Cronin, Jr., Florida State University

Despite efforts to eliminate mistakes, service delivery sometimes fails. Flights are delayed, luggage is lost, hotels are overbooked, waiters are rude, and countless other problems occur. In this paper, we investigate two plausible strategies that can be used to recover from service failure. This first is a traditional replacement approach, which involves extending an opportunity to receive the service again at no cost to the customer (e.g., free coupons, complimentary tickets, awards miles and so forth). A second strategy we investigate is the cultivation of strong brand equity, which can offset customer defections after a failure.

We also consider how these recovery options may differ depending on the characteristics of the good. Using the accessibility-diagnosticity model as a framework, we suggest (1) recovering from a failure is more difficult and (2) cultivating brand equity is especially important, when the good is less tangible (i.e., a service) compared to a more tangible good (i.e., a physical good).

Three independent studies were used to investigate these effects. The first was a pilot study designed to test our basic assumptions. The results support our theorizing and indicate that failures associated with services are more accessible and more diagnostic than failures associated with physical goods. The findings also indicate an effect with respect to recovery method. For services, offering a replacement after a failure is not an effective solution compared to the same solution for physical goods.

The second study utilized scenario descriptions of failed purchase encounters to test six hypotheses. The design was 4 (product type: two services, airline and amusement park; two physical goods, television and portable cassette player) x 2 (recovery: "good," involving apology and replacement, or "poor," with no apology or replacement), x 2 (brand equity: high, low). All three variables were manipulated between subjects. 644 responses were collected from a quota controlled sample of shopping customers.

The results from this study were consistent with our hypotheses. A replacement approach seems to engender two effects that our framework suggests are useful in retaining customers after a failure. These effects are a negative influence on diagnosticity and a positive influence on the valence of impressions attached to failed encounters. However, as predicted, both effects are less pronounced for services than for physical gods. Brand equity also produces beneficial recovery effects, as it reduces diagnosticity and decreases accessibility. Moreover, because of presumably high accessibility, brand equity is even more effective as a service recovery method than it is as a response to a failed physical good.

In the third study, we sought to isolate the recovery effects of brand equity and replacement. It was our contention that brand equity operates proactively and influences impressions of the failure incident at the time of the failure. In contrast, replacement operates reactively and therefore only influences customer perceptions after the incident. This is an important distinction since the majority of failure incidents for services are unreported by customers. Brand equity would therefore offer recovery benefits regardless of whether the incident was reported. The methodology employed for this study was similar to study 2 and 290 responses were gathered from shoppers. The results were consistent with the proposed effects with respect to how brand equity and replacement operate.

Our findings have important theoretical implications regarding the specific roles of brand equity and replacement in retaining customers. It appears the former is particularly useful for service recovery while the latter is a better strategy as a response to a physical good failure. In addition to the recovery implications, our research also adds to the more general brand equity literature. The results indicate that brand equity offers an advantage in the recovery phase, not just the pre-purchase benefits elucidated in the literature.



Jennifer Aaker, Stanford University

Susan Fournier, Harvard University

S. Adam Brasel, Stanford University

Relationship growth is a complex process characterized by ebbs and flows, spurts and decays. One given in the relationship, however, particularly a relationship that is long-term, is the occurrence of a transgression or letdown. Understanding the effects of the transgressionChow it influences and is influenced by the nature and strength of the consumer-brand relationshipCis pivotal to the advance of theory in this domain.

Our research seeks to raise, then empirically answer, three main questions concerning consumer-brand relationship dynamics. First, how do consumer-brand relationships develop over time? Through a study in which consumers interact with an Internet brand repeatedly over time, we gain insight into relationship dynamics and the nature and strength of the relationships that result. Second, how do transgressions affect the relationship development process? This question is addressed by manipulating the presence versus absence of a transgression, and then examining what effect an apology and recovery have on relationship quality dimensions. Third, what moderators affect relationship development, and the negative effects of the transgression? We show that brand personality has a significant influence on the development of the consumer-brand relationship, and, further, that personality influences the effects of transgressions and the pattern of recovery that ensues.

To empirically examine these questions, we created a web-based photography processing service brand. Named Captura, the service offered film, development, digitization, and online photo albums, in addition to value-added photography content. Two brand personalities ("sincere" and "exciting") were manipulated by varying the brand logo, color scheme, font, and textual tone within content. Over a 2.5-month period, 50 subjects interacted with Captura, visiting the website or receiving e-mail twice weekly with new content. During the study, subjects were sent a disposable camera, which was returned for development and digitization of the pictures, creation of an online photo album, and provision of photo hard copies. Two days after participants were invited to view their online photo albums, half of the participants were told that a mistake had been made: due to an ISP problem, their album had been accidentally erased (presence of a transgression). The other half was given, instead, neutral content about their pictures (absence of a transgression). A letter of apology and a subsequent recovery attempt (photo album was restored) followed the transgression condition, and for both sets of participants, the relationship and interactions continued for three more weeks.

Results showed that participants established a deeper degree of trust, interdependence, intimacy, and commitment with the sincere (versus exciting) brand, leading to higher levels of brand salience, relationship satisfaction, willingness to pay a premium for the service, and likelihood of future use. Further, while relationship strength rose consistently over time with the sincere brand, mimicking the pattern of development found for a friendship or courtship, relationship strength rose then decreased sharply over time with the exciting brandCa pattern reminiscent of a "fling". However, these results only held in the absence-of-transgression conditions. In the conditions where a transgression occurred, relationships strength measures fell dramatically regardless of the brand’s personality. When an apology and recovery occurred, however, subjects responded quite differently to the two brand personalities. The consumer-brand relationship in the exciting brand condition made a rapid recovery to pre-transgression levels, with higher levels of reliability, trust, support, and satisfaction accruing. The relationship in the sincere brand condition, however, did not recover upon reparation attempts, and relationship strength measures remained well below their pre-transgression levels.

Why does this difference in reactions to transgressions take place? Various process diagnostics point to the connection between deepening relationship strength and future expectations or rules of performanceCwhat is referred to in the human relationships literature as the implicit relationship contract. The sincere brand, having higher levels of intimacy, trust, and interdependence pre-transgression, also had correspondingly higher levels of expectations on future performance. Transgressions were met with unwelcomed surprise as such violations stood in stark contrast with these expectations, Further, since a recovery attempt was expected of the sincere brand, the actual recovery seemed unable to assuage the negative feelings created by the transgression. In contrast, the exciting brand had weaker levels of trust, intimacy, and interdependence pre-transgression, and a correspondingly lower expectation of future performance. Thus, while the transgression came as less of a surprise, the recovery by the brand was also less expected. Two process mechanisms are put forth: (1) that the transgression breathed new life and interest into what was a relatively "dormant" and inactive relationship, thus invigorating growth and development anew, and (2) that over-delivery against expectations increased relationship strength in a process akin to that of satisfaction, thus increasing quality over time.



Linda Price, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Eric Arnould, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Fleura Bardhi, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

This paper reports the results of a study employing qualitative data undertaken to understand the nature of betrayal and especially, betrayal in different context, where interpersonal betrayal is compared and contrasted with commercial betrayal. Further, the paper attempts to distinguish between service failure and commercial betrayal. Considerable consumer research has focused on trust as an outcome of a variety of antecedent factors, and the sources and dimensions of trust in commercial relationships. However, little research has focused on the consequences of violations of trust or betrayal in ongoing commercial relationships. To complicate matters, research on betrayal tends to be scattered across distinct literatures, making it difficult to identify common types of betrayal as well as how betrayal affects relationships. To our knowledge there is no in-depth study to examine the nature and consequences of commercial betrayal. This research builds on previous work by authors on trust and betrayal in business-to-business relationships and commercial friendships. An important implication of this previous work is that at least some degree of betrayal is inevitable, and that one important source of betrayal is an unreciprocated attempt by one exchange party to stretch relationship norms.

Betrayal has historically constituted a central human concern that arouses strong and negative feelings. It is considered as one of the highest risks in a relationship since it influences a partner’s dignity, self-esteem, and identity. Betrayal is a common social phenomenon that can occur at many points in the development of personal relationships. Research indicates that betrayal occurs more often in types of relationships and contexts that people consider important, such as: marriages, family relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, work relationships, etc. Betrayal occurs when there is a violation of one of the relationship components: relationship expectations, commitment, and trust. Further, betrayal is defined as overstepping the boundaries of a WeCa social unit formed as we socialize, share information, reveal secrets, participate in rituals, etc.

Our research project was organized in two steps. In the first study, 40 students were asked to describe betrayal and provide betrayal incidents in interpersonal and commercial contexts. In the second study, through depth interviews we explored the nature of commercial betrayal especially in service encounters, its difference from service failures, and ways that people handle betrayal. We took three different approaches to understanding commercial betrayals. We asked consumers to provide narratives of betrayal, describing their experiences of these instances, causes and participants in the incidents, and consequences for the relationship. We also asked for comparison of exemplars of betrayal in interpersonal and commercial contexts. Finally, we explored ways consumers deal with betrayal and how that influences their relationships.

We use our findings to develop an understanding of commercial betrayal as both similar to and distinct from other types of interpersonal relational betrayal (e.g., romantic, family, or friendship). Our findings suggest that across contexts, betrayal involves a violation of trust, lying, cheating, backstabbing, and deceiving. Interpersonal betrayal occurs when people are taken advantage of, someone reveals private information, or when these behaviors are considered to be intentional. Consistent with the interpersonal communication literature, the intensity of the emotions and consequences of betrayal are related to the role of a third partyCthe party with whom a relationship partner commits a betrayal. Commercial betrayal differs from interpersonal betrayal in a number of ways. In commercial betrayal there is no mention of a role played by a third party. Differences also occur because of the history of relationships: in the interpersonal context, a preexisting relationship between partners is a precondition for betrayal; violation of trust or commitment is not considered as betrayal when no previous relationship between partners exists. This s not necessarily the case for commercial betrayal. Commercial betrayals can occur even in one-time transactions with service providersCperceived commercial promises with service providers can be formed through a company’s marketing communications and brand image.

Other important differences between commercial and interpersonal betrayals are related to post-betrayal processes. In commercial betrayal there is a clear sense of who is to blameCthe service provider. Further, consumers in commercial betrayal incidents present themselves in active roles. Consumers not only know who is to blame but may pursue the company for compensation. They may also engage in negative word of mouth and rethink their strategies for dealing with service providers in the future. By contrast in interpersonal betrayal, attribution of fault is not clear. Informants express confusion, hopelessness, and sometimes make internal attributions to account for betrayal. Further, with regard to the intensity of feelings these two types of betrayals and their consequences differ. In interpersonal betrayal, informants report strong feelings that their identity and dignity were called into question. In commercial betrayal, financial consequences take primacy over emotional experiences.

After conducting the interviews and analyzing the data, we came to the conclusion that commercial betrayal is a betrayal with a little 'b’. Some of the respondents think that 'betrayal’ is too strong a word to use for commercial settings. Also, as we conducted the interviews on commercial betrayal, consumers were not really touched or emotionally hurt by the commercial betrayal events. They expected betrayals to happen. Further, in differentiating between commercial betrayal and service failure, our findings indicate that there is a fine line between the two and that service failure in some context can be considered betrayal in other contexts. When the consumer feels that he/she has been lied to, cheated, deceived, especially if this is done intentionally, service failures are considered betrayals. Further, service failures where the service provider does not take responsibility or action to repair the damage are considered betrayals.



Susan Fournier, Harvard University
S. Adam Brasel, Stanford University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

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