Brand crises in the digital age: The short- and long-term effects of social media firestorms on consumers and brands
Social media firestorms imply the sudden occurrence of many, predominantly negative social media expressions against a brand. Do such firestorms leave a mark on consumers and their brand judgments—in the short term but also over time—to a degree that deserves managerial attention? What kind of firestorms have the strongest destructive potential? This manuscript treats firestorms as a digital form of brand crisis and proposes a conceptual framework to identify which firestorms harm short- and long-term brand perceptions and become part of consumers' long-term memory. A unique data set combines secondary data about 78 real-life firestorms with daily brand perceptions obtained from the YouGov panel and survey data from 997 consumers. The results indicate that of all affected brands, 58% suffer from a decrease in short-term brand perceptions, and 40% suffer long-term negative effects, suggesting that social media firestorms can indeed harm businesses but also show that strong variations exist. Contingency analyses of the conceptual framework with regressions and generalized estimating equations indicate that social media firestorms are most impactful in terms of negative brand association changes and/or memory effects when they are initiated by a vivid trigger (e.g., video in the first firestorm tweet), linked to a product/service or social failure, characterized by a large volume of social media messages, and when they last longer.