Why Online Ratings & Reviews Matter So Much for Brands 

March 23rd, 2020 | Denis Hancock, Vice President, Strategy, Brandspark

Woman holding credit card while shopping online

Increasing brand value is a key objective for most marketers. While the exact metrics used can vary, the ultimate objective does not – strengthening the brand to make it more likely that your product or service is selected by shoppers over available alternatives. Do that successfully, ideally including an increase in brand trust and advocacy, and business success will typically come.  

New technologies and platforms are continually evolving that change the way shoppers evaluate brands, and how marketers can influence them – thus impacting brand value. Of these, at BrandSpark we believe online ratings and reviews are among the most important, and often don’t get the attention they deserve.  

The reason they are so important is that they’ve fundamentally altered the brand value calculation – particularly by eroding the functional product and service quality cues that brands used to convey, and in turn taking much of the brand trust calculation out of marketers hands. Both online, and thanks to smartphones at the store shelf as well.  

The core of this argument is quite simple. Until fairly recently, shoppers typically had limited information at their fingertips when making a purchase decision. Brand names helped fill this void. Shoppers might compare features and benefit claims, but ultimately it was hard to know if something different than what they were used to would ultimately deliver.  

This made the functional aspect of brand value crucial to many purchase decisions – a mark which gave shoppers confidence. Sure, an individual could reach out to friends and family for recommendations – but there’s an upper threshold on how often that is reasonable to do which sits far below the number of purchases a typical shopper makes. Particularly if they want to keep their friends! 

Online ratings and reviews changed this equation by easily eliminating an “unknown”, on-demand. With a couple of clicks online (or taps on their phone at the shelf), shoppers can quickly see the reviews from many other shoppers for a given product or service. Because of this, brand equity built over decades can be trumped in a few seconds by simple combination of stars and comments that tells the shopper the alternate is better (or perhaps about the same and cheaper, etc.). And as the BrandSpark® Shopper Study reveals, Canadian shoppers are embracing these reviews, and becoming ever more likely to wait and buy products “recommended” by others (15% increase since 2015).  
The implications of this for marketers are clear. It is now critical to have a strong strategy and process in place for managing online ratings and reviews, particularly for new product launches – which is something our sister company Shopper Army helps brands deliver on. This particularly applies to e-commerce, where a virtuous cycle (more and better reviews leads to more sales, which bumps up the rankings, which leads to even more sales, etc.) is created and easy to measure – and a lack of reviews is a clear red flag waving directly in shopper’s faces, whether they are actively looking for it or not.  

A strong ratings and reviews process ensures there is a sufficient volume of recent reviews, ideally including a number with a fair amount of detail – it’s not just seeking out 5-star feedback. BrandSpark has learned that, for example, a 4.4-star rated product with numerous, recent quality reviews is typically better received by shoppers than a product that has 5-stars from only a handful of shoppers.  

Skepticism about companies “gaming” reviews can only drive these volume, quality and recency thresholds higher. And the more important a particular decision is tied to – which often, but not always, correlates to price – the more likely shoppers are to read longer reviews in detail. This includes looking for cues in negative feedback that say “OK, maybe that product wasn’t right for them – but they clearly had different needs than I do.” 

The other key implication is that it becomes that much more important to ensure the brand is making emotional connections with shoppers – such as lifestyle brands that act as a “badge of honor”. While the benefit of making such connections is not news to marketers by any means, in reality many brands could get away without doing it before simply because of superior product and service perceptions, and scale advantages over upstart competitors. Now they can’t – unless what they offer is truly superior.  

Online ratings and reviews have changed how shoppers make decisions – and the very nature of brand value. At BrandSpark we fundamentally believe that brands that primarily stand for “our product is better” are going to see their value continue to erode over time. In turn, it’s incumbent on marketers to both ensure they have a strong ratings and reviews strategy in place, and elevate brand strengths in non-functional areas in order to increase (and in some cases even maintain) brand value and relevancy.