The Power of Dislike

Why companies should learn to love their dislikers


I’ve never really understood the allure of online grocery shopping. I love the ability to be able to touch the avocado, assess the ripeness of the fruit, and sometimes even talk to the butcher about the best cut of beef.

With the arrival of my first born son, all of this changed. Suddenly my life was all about the quickest route from work to home, and stopping at the super market or the butcher was just a waste of valuable time that I could have spent with my son. Online grocery shopping suddenly made sense.

Being a systematic person, I decided to test the two main online grocery stores in Denmark before settling on a preferred vendor for diapers and baby food. We bought our first batch of groceries at Nemlig.com and the second at Irma.dk. For those unfamiliar with the Danish online grocery market, Nemlig.com is a start-up, and Irma.dk is the online offspring of a brick-and-mortar incumbent.

Both of the sites had more or less flawless usability and checkout flows. Both of the services delivered on time, but neither were able to deliver all the items I had ordered. Nemlig.com had run out of organic flour, and Irma.dk had no more chicken. In both cases the missing items meant that I had to stop by the supermarket on the way home from work, defying the original purpose of online grocery shopping in the first place.

This being a serious test, I immediately shared the experience with my Facebook friends, and asked them if this was a common occurrence with online grocery shops. Well, yes. Several people complained about similar experiences, but as the conversation developed, a clear pattern emerged. Despite minor bad experiences, most of the customers of Nemlig.com were fanatic fans—not because of superior products or superior usability, but because of an unrelenting and proactive customer service. A couple of hours into the conversation, one of my friends suddenly proclaimed that someone from Nemlig.com had picked up this (public) conversation on Facebook and noticed her post about a batch of rotten carrots. They had immediately sent her a message promising to deduct the carrots from her bill.

Later that evening, my doorbell rang. I opened the door to a smiling delivery guy from Nemlig.com, who said that they had a little surprise for me. Out of the box he pulled two bags of organic flour, and a handwritten note saying that they apologized for the missing delivery; they were working on improving their systems, and would I please accept a free delivery for my next purchase.

Bam! I was completely flabbergasted and immediately went back to Facebook and wrote a long post extolling the virtues of Nemlig.com, and how I would now be a loyal customer for the rest of my life.

The customer service of Nemlig.com is no ordinary customer service, because they comprehend The Power of Dislike. They understand the fact that grumpy, dissatisfied, or angry customers can be one of your greatest assets—if you know how to treat them right.

The Power of Dislike is a mysterious and elusive power. It’s understood by few businesses, but is present in the DNA of most successful online businesses today. The Power of Dislike works because dislikers are talkers, and talkers create conversations, and in the online age, conversations are business. Or to put it differently, when people are dissatisfied they will speak up, and people who speak up are the holy grail of social media marketing.

Most businesses are frantically chasing likers, followers, fans, or viewers in social media, but at the end of the day, the true heroes of social media are the businesses who understand how to have honest conversations with dislikers and turn them into lifelong fans.

Conversations are business, but dislikers also create something else just as valuable: they provide knowledge about your business and your customers. Nemlig.com may spend millions of dollars doing customer surveys and focus groups, but they also choose to listen to conversations like the one I had with my Facebook friends. They find nuggets of gold in the shape of customers criticizing their product and explicitly or implicitly coming up with ideas for improvements—for free!

Likers are nice for your vanity, but dislikers are good for your business, marketing, and product development.

Three years ago, I was in the early phase of writing a book about social media strategy. I had several brilliant ideas for a title, all including the word “cacophony,” because social media strategy is all about tuning into the cacophony of scattered voices. I decided to test some of the title ideas on potential readers, so I created a Google survey and distributed it via Facebook and Twitter (my Facebook friends and Twitter followers are also very much my potential readers).

The results quickly ticked in, and the conclusion was that my followers and friends more or less unanimously hated all of the title ideas, and specifically the word “cacophony,” which they found pretentious and unnecessarily intellectual. In short, they smacked me in the face with a big dislike!

It is fairly depressing to start a book with a big dislike from your readers. After a couple of days of reflection, though, I realized that cacophony actually was a pretty bad word, and that I had been pretty blind not to see that from the beginning. I changed the title to The Perfect Storm (In Danish Den perfekte storm), and went on to publish the book, which has become a local business bestseller in this country. However, I also recruited many of the survey participants to become part of an advisory group that I consulted throughout the writing process… and guess what? The true value of this group did not come from the fact that they “liked” my book’s Facebook page. No, it came from all of their valuable criticism, and from the interesting conversations that developed because they disagreed and disliked my ideas and writing. My dislikers helped me write a better book, and along the way we created a lot of conversation and engaged a lot of people who went on to become talkative ambassadors for the book when it was published.

The Power of Dislike works for online grocery stores and authors who write about social media; does it also work for more traditional businesses?

Two years ago, Maersk Line, the largest container shipping firm in the world, had an experience that taught them something about The Power of Dislike. One of the firm’s ships sailed into the harbor of Rotterdam with a dead whale on the bow of the ship: yikes.

What would most large, media-shy, multinational companies do in a situation like that? Yes, you guessed right, they would get rid of the whale and hope that no one noticed, especially not the whale lovers from Greenpeace. But in an age of omnipresent smartphones, there is a pretty good chance that someone will notice. A dead whale on the bow of a ship is a pretty good picture, and if some random guy in Rotterdam snaps that picture with his cellphone, it’s only a couple of clicks away from being Maersk Line’s next social-media shit storm.

So what did Maersk Line do? They did what every sensible and social-media-savvy teenager would do: they embraced the bad story and made it their own before someone else could. They knew it was a bad story, and they knew that the story had a lot of potential dislike stored in it; but if they dealt with it in an honest, transparent, and proactive way, maybe they could win the day.

And this is exactly what happened. Maersk Line put the photo of the dead whale on their Facebook page, and as expected, it attracted a lot of attention. But instead of the mood turning ugly, it turned to sympathy, and conversation about how it happened and what would happen to the whale afterwards. Not only had Maersk Line averted a media storm from whale-loving environmentalists, they also turned a bad story into a constructive conversation, which created engagement and interesting content on their Facebook page.

So dislikers are good for business. But what about all the social-media shit storms that have struck companies like United Airlines, McDonald’s, Amy’s Bakery, and many many more? Are they also good for business?

No—and this is an important distinction. The Power of Dislike is all about engaging with your dislikers before they turn into haters. Haters are NOT valuable for business. They do not start conversations, they are not constructive, and they rarely contribute anything interesting. Try at all costs to avoid haters! This is exactly what companies who understand The Power of Dislike do. They address the issues that people dislike before they become serious issues, and before a critical mass of people have assembled.

The Power of Dislike is actually situated in a lush land of opportunity, right between the Scylla of haters and the Charybdis of fanboys. The haters you want to avoid. The fanboys are nice, but not really interesting, because they will always be fanboys no matter what. The true value of The Power of Dislike lies in the people in between, who are willing to engage in critical conversation about your company and your products.

So why don’t more companies exploit The Power of Dislike? Well, because it is pretty damn hard to be disliked! It runs counter to everything they tell you at business school, and sometimes even against the very fabric of your company’s self-esteem. Companies like to tell their customers and their employees that they are flawless market leaders, always ahead of their competitors. Their products are the best, and if anyone tells you different, they will either be sued, or silenced by ever-louder proclamations of the virtue of their products.

In a corporate culture where perfection is king and flaws are swept under the carpet, it is almost impossible to embrace The Power of Dislike. In such a culture dislikers are, by definition, always wrong, and engaging in conversation with dislikers is meaningless.

So what to do? It is definitely not easy, but here are three tips for companies who want to embrace The Power of Dislike.

1. Fight your hubris. As a company you need to realize that you are not the sharpest tool in the shed. There are almost always competitors out there who are better, faster, smarter, and more creative. Without this admission, you will never be able to engage with your dislikers and listen honestly to their criticism.

But this is extremely difficult, and it needs to be done in a balanced way, because you don’t want your employees to lose faith in the company. You need to find a balanced path in which you are constantly aware that there are competitors out there doing things better than you, and you maintain pride in the core values of your company.

2. Practice. Allow me to use an example from the cold Scandinavian countries, where we have this weird practice called “winter bathing:” we jump into the ocean in winter time and drink some (a lot) of beers in a sauna afterwards. The first time I tried this ritual, I literally thought I was going to die when my naked body hit the water. This feeling of extreme and acute panic stayed in my body for several minutes, until the sauna and beers started to work their miracle.

This was 15 years ago, and I still go swimming in the ocean every winter. And this may surprise you: I still have the acute feeling of near-death panic when I drop into the ocean. What is different now is that the panic subsides in a matter of seconds, not minutes. I am able to control my nervous system and rationally tell my body that I am not going to die (today), and then I actually start to enjoy the whole ordeal.

When companies start listening to their dislikers for the first time, it is just as unpleasant as my first splash in the frozen Scandinavian waters. Criticism is disagreeable, and it challenges a natural narcissistic tendency in all of us; but if you start practicing, you will notice how the unpleasant part takes up less and less space. And fortunately, in the age of social media, practicing is pretty easy to do. You just have to turn on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or some professional listening tool, and search for a number of relevant keywords. Depending on your line of business, there will either be a flood or a trickle of dislike, criticism, and ideas for product improvements.

When you get more seasoned, you will start encouraging people to dislike you. You will ask for their comments on your website, on your packaging, or in follow-up emails (or, as I do, at the end of every chapter in my book). What you need to understand is that the distasteful part of criticism will never go away (I still hate it when people dislike something I write), but with practice, the rational part of your brain will kick in faster, and you’ll be able to control your narcissistic anger and actually enjoy The Power of Dislike.

3. Always be “under construction.” Whenever you think your product is finished, perfect, and unimprovable, you make yourself immune to The Power of Dislike. If you think your product is perfect, there is no point in listening to dislikers. Why should you? Your product is as good as it can get.

Apple is such a company. Apple always introduces perfect, polished, and finished products, and if anyone doubts this, Apple is definitely not listening to them. Google, on the other hand, is the type of company that launches almost everything in beta. Nothing is ever done when it comes out of Mountain View, it can always be improved. If you are such a company, you love The Power of Dislike. You love criticism, because it is a valuable source for your product developers to make the products even better.

The effects of these very different corporate cultures are obvious to everyone. Apple has been lucky to actually produce near-perfect products for a spell of ten years, but it seems like they —quite naturally—have run into a creative low, and are now trying to catch up with some of their competitors. But Apple has no mental tools to deal with this creative low. They are unable to listen to criticism, and it looks like the depression of this situation is eating away the very core of the company’s self-esteem.

Google, on the other hand, launches Google Glass, which is, depending on your worldview, a pretty big failure. But for Google, this is just a minor glitch. They’re used to producing unfinished, prototype-like, and even really bad products. If Google Glass doesn’t work, they will just introduce Google Wear, and if that doesn’t work, something entirely different. A single failure or a lot of criticism doesn’t kill Google: it only makes the company stronger. By using The Power of Dislike, Google has, in the words of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, become antifragile.

The Power of Dislike is definitely not an easy skillset to achieve, but it doesn’t require you to be a Zen master, either. You need to kill your hubris, practice, and never launch finished products, and then you will slowly notice a whole new worldview start to pervade your business. You will start to see dislikers not as enemies to be silenced, but as assets who start valuable conversations and carry crucial information to your business.


The Power of Dislike is a concept under development, so please provide feedback and constructive criticism — or even better: real world cases of companies exploiting The Power of Dislike. Visit www.thepowerofdislike.com or my Twitter profile @petersvarre to comment.