Gossip and Rumour: How brands can set the record straight

Colleen Ryan
By Colleen Ryan | 20 June 2023
Colleen Ryan

Colleen Ryan, Partner, TRA

Gossip and rumour - we've all experienced the power they hold. Whispered in hushed conversations, shared through online reviews, or buzzing around the office corridors, these elusive whispers have the uncanny ability to shape the perception of your brand.

In Australia’s ever-competitive market, all brands will inevitably face some form of negativity at some point – and it’s likely this negativity will be created, or at least exacerbated, by the power of gossip and rumour. When this happens, marketers need to have a firm grip on the behaviour change principles and targeted strategies needed to take back control of the narrative; set the record straight; rebuild trust and regain your brand’s customer base.

Why rumour happens
The first step to combat gossip and rumour is to understand why we do it in the first place.
As social beings, humans rely on collaboration and reciprocity for survival and prosperity. In the early days of communal living, it would have been inefficient for everyone to fend for themselves. Instead, we specialized in tasks that benefitted the collective. Gossip, a hardwired behaviour, emerged as a mechanism to keep our social groups in check and maintain trust, a vital ingredient for reciprocity. Academic studies reveal that we spend a significant amount of our time engaged in gossip, a primitive instinct that still resonates in our modern world.

One crucial factor that amplifies the impact of gossip is confirmation bias. Once we hear a rumour, stumble upon a bad review, or encounter negative PR, we start seeing evidence of it everywhere. Algorithms further exacerbate this by feeding us more of what we've already seen. Although confirmation bias operates unconsciously, its influence is undeniable. We become more convinced by the negative narratives we encounter.

How to combat rumour
Overcoming the hurdles posed by rumour and gossip requires addressing the issue of trust. Nowadays, trust doesn't necessarily originate from your organisation or brand. It often stems from non-specific sources, making it difficult for people to recall where they heard the negative perspective. This widespread exposure adds credibility to the gossip, fuelled by confirmation bias.

Additionally, bad news acts like a magnet, making individuals hypersensitive to any negative information, even if it pertains to different aspects of your business. A single bad review on customer service can quickly escalate to encompass topics like gender pay gaps or pricing policies.

To change the minds of those influenced by gossip, the key lies in altering the frame of trust. You must become the source of trust, even if it means taking responsibility for some negative behaviour.

Effective strategic interventions from brands
One great example of strategic intervention to combat rumour comes from the Australian supermarket chain Coles, which faced a significant PR crisis in 2019. Colloquially referred to as the ‘milk wars’, negative media coverage and rumours surrounding Coles’ milk pricing practices suggested that Coles was underpaying dairy farmers and harming the local industry.

In response, Coles took proactive steps to address the issue and regain trust.

Coles launched a comprehensive public relations campaign, including media statements, advertisements, and direct communication with stakeholders. They clarified their pricing policies, highlighted their commitment to supporting local farmers, and emphasised the measures they had taken to ensure fair payments. Coles also engaged in open dialogue with dairy industry representatives and implemented a milk price increase to support farmers.

For a more international (but equally milky) example of tackling negative gossip and rumour, we can look to alternative milk brand Oatly. Through their website, fckoatly.com, Oatly consolidates all the negative reviews and PR about their brand, directly addressing the stories and inviting visitors to click on an "I hate Oatly" button. By acknowledging the negativity and creating a space for open dialogue, they aim to reclaim their position as the source of truth.

It's essential to be cautious when employing strategies like Oatly's approach. By compiling numerous negative stories in one place, there is a risk of encountering argument efficiency decline (AED). Our brains tend to average out arguments, so even if you have a highly persuasive point, subsequent weaker arguments can dilute its overall impact. Skilled lawyers and debaters advise focusing on your strongest argument rather than attempting to dismantle every opposing point to maintain persuasiveness.

Only time will tell if Oatly's approach successfully shifts detractors' mindsets and boosts their market share. However, one thing we know is for Australian brands operating in our current competitive landscape, there is no room to disregard or ‘write-off’ a group of people as set against us.

The good news is – we don’t have to. Leveraging behaviour change strategies to combat negative perceptions is an effective way to stem the tide of people turning against your brand and win back customers.

By recognising the power of gossip and rumour and understanding the innate human tendencies that amplify their effects, you can take proactive steps to rebuild trust. Address negative narratives head-on and learn from the successes of brands like Oatly and Coles to pave the way for your own brand's success.


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