Can Brand Value Overpower Fear-Based Marketing?

Last year, we featured a piece on Branding Strategy Insider called FEAR: The Ultimate Brand Builder? In which we explored the ways fear and scarcity are used to motivate and persuade consumers to take action, and ideas to harness such a powerful motivation without having to rely on it. As Ted-talk phenom and author Brene Brown observed, “We live in a culture with a strong sense of scarcity. We wake up in the morning and we say, ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ And we hit the pillow saying, ‘I didn’t get enough done.’ We’re never thin enough, extraordinary enough or good enough – until we decide that we are. For me, the opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It’s enough. I’m enough. My kids are enough.”

One might argue that in the last five years, the problem has gotten worse – the bit about our culture having a strong sense of scarcity. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says, “It’s easy to get discouraged by the ceaseless news of violence, poverty, and disease. But the news presents a distorted view of the world. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. You never see a TV crew reporting that a country isn’t at war, or that a city hasn’t had a mass shooting that day, or that millions of 80-year-olds are alive and well.” In fact, violent crime has fallen by half since 1992. Worldwide, fewer babies die, more children go to school, more people live in democracies, more can afford simple luxuries, fewer get sick, and more live to old age. It doesn’t mean things are perfect, or that some parts of the world are worse, but generally speaking, things on a whole are better today for most of the world.

So why all of the fear?

Fear works by activating some ancient systems hardwired into our brains around the perception of threats. Russ Henneberry at Crazy Egg breaks this down into three primary considerations:

  1. Perceived vulnerability – ‘How likely is it to hurt me’
  2. Perceived severity – ‘How bad will it hurt’
  3. Efficacy – ‘Do I have the ability to avoid the pain’

But fear can backfire. Jennifer Perkins, Director of Ethnography and Consumer insights at Smith Brothers Agency, warns, “Fear may cause people to stop and think momentarily, but in the long run, it may just cause frustration and actually have the opposite effect of what you had hoped for. Fear appeals, such as those alerting people to the dangers of drunk driving or depletion of natural resources, could be effective. In these instances, the public good and the advertiser’s interests are congruent.”

For brands, being congruent is the key. There are legitimate reasons to highlight real threats that merit the attention of consumers. But we live in a world in which so many threats are wildly exaggerated or outright manufactured, that the role of an ethical brand is to consider which products, services and causes can only be effectively marketed using fear and limit their choices to those.

Here are three ideas that might harness the motivation of fear without relying on it:

1. Tell the truth, even if it hurts. Or don’t and risk embarrassment: With the US mid-term elections upon us, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg released a statement about what their brand is doing to be sure bad actors aren’t manipulating the election. Yet a Business Insider article just a few days ago proved that all of Facebook’s advanced AI technology couldn’t detect a flaw that should have been immediately flagged.

2. Find ways to remove anxiety: Axe’s recent “Is it OK for guys” campaign did a fantastic job highlighting male vulnerabilities, and perhaps alleviating anxiety about questions that may be culturally taboo. There are a lot of irrational fears in the world that can be played on, or systematically dismantled. Brands should do the latter.

3. Demonstrate gallant privacy stewardship: Brands have access to more and more data about customers, and customers don’t always know when, where and who has access to their information. Apple’s Tim Cook has been one of big tech’s only guardians of personal privacy. Just a few weeks ago they deployed a technology that prevents advertisers from tracking Safari users from site to site.

Many in our profession have built a dependency on fear to drive their brands. Perhaps Bob Bhojwani put it best in his comment on Branding Strategy Insider’s facebook page when he observed; “We have got used to marketing the fear and then selling the solution instead of offering true value.”

Perhaps marketing fear is a sign of a brand that is unable to compete on customer desires alone. After all, if your offering is appealing to wants and needs why motivate through fear?

More brands should act on Brad Van Auken’s prescient advice. He said, “I personally believe that we marketers should pay more attention to people’s desires and less attention to their anxieties. It would make for a far more sane and pleasant world. And, we as marketers with our barrage of messages contribute more to the nature of our shared reality than we might imagine.”

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