Lindsay Ma Studies How Corporations Can Restore Brand Loyalty After a Crisis

Consumer-brand identification plays a key role in overcoming customer dissatisfaction after a corporate fiasco.

Lindsay Ma Studies How Corporations Can Restore Brand Loyalty After a Crisis

Consumer-brand identification plays a key role in overcoming customer dissatisfaction after a corporate fiasco.

The story is familiar: One partner in a relationship betrays the other, then tries to win the jilted partner back. Is this the plot of a new Netflix rom-com? Nope, although romantic entanglements did inspire Liang “Lindsay” Ma, assistant professor of strategic communication. Instead, Ma studies relationships between corporations and their customers — particularly how companies attempt to woo back consumers after fiascos of their own creation.

A portrait of Lindsay Ma outside

Lindsay Ma found that brands need to reaffirm their core identity after enduring a crisis to regain the trust of their customers. Photo by Mark Graham

Ma specializes in crisis communication — a challenge for companies in the social media age. “It puts a much higher demand on organizations for how quickly they have to respond to a crisis,” Ma said. “If they don’t get their side of the story in the news … other people will.”

If a company causes a preventable crisis, the stakes are high to get the message right, Ma said, because “consumers usually feel more betrayed.”

Key public relations theories teach that a company’s response should be driven by how the public assigns responsibility for the crisis. But Ma thinks companies should also consider a different factor: how the crisis threatens the essence of their brands. She explored the idea in her paper “How the Interplay of Consumer-Brand Identification and Crises Influences the Effectiveness of Corporate Response Strategies,” published in the International Journal of Business Communication in 2020.

A consumer purchase is more than a financial transaction. A psychological component exists in a concept called consumer-brand identification. “It’s when a consumer identifies with a brand and feels it helps them express what kind of person they are,” Ma said. 

Previous literature argued that if a company had a strong, positive relationship with stakeholders before a crisis, those bonds would buffer the impacts of a crisis. Ma questioned if that were always the case. “I thought about it in terms of a romantic relationship,” she said. “If a person dated someone for 10 days versus 10 years, the person who dated for 10 years would feel more hurt or betrayed.” 

Ma conducted an online experiment to test how brand identification influenced reactions to hypothetical crises. Participants identified with Apple for its innovativeness and with Whole Foods for healthy lifestyles. One of the two hypothetical crisis scenarios for each brand threatened the shared defining attribute: that Whole Foods sold nonnatural food in its stores or that Apple had stolen technology. 

The buffering effect of strong identification was much weaker when the preventable crisis threatened the shared attribute. “That attribute not only represents the core meaning or value of the brand,” she said, “it’s an attribute that consumers consider part of their self-concept.”

After a crisis, “organizations need to try to rebuild their core identity.”
Lindsay Ma

“Her research contributes to the crisis communication literature by providing a refined perspective on the type of threat a crisis brings to the organization,” said Monica Zhan, assistant professor of communication at the University of Texas at Arlington, who co-authored a 2016 paper with Ma. 

Ma concluded that among the standard public relations tools, compensation is the most effective way to reduce consumers’ negative reactions to a crisis.

But Ma also proposed a new strategy, one she calls identification-intensifier. “Organizations need to try to rebuild their core identity [after a crisis],” she said. “Then they can remind stakeholders that the core identity is even stronger and that they’ll make sure it’s not going to be compromised again.”  

She thinks that message, communicated frequently, will be effective for corporations undergoing a crisis. “Brands should keep open and frequent communication with their consumers, especially those who have a very deep psychological connection with them,” she said, “because those are the consumers who will help you get through this time of difficulty.”