Ac-cent-tchu-ate the NEGATIVE

For this month's theme of 'love and fear' Kev Chesters reflects on how fear can be a powerful tool for advertising

I’ve lost track of how many times people have told me that love is the key to brand success.

It’s all about love. Getting your brand loved. I googled “brand love” a minute ago. I got 9 billion hits in half a second.

Equally true is that if I had a quid for every time a client told me that they couldn’t buy an idea because they needed it to “start from the positive” then I’d probably be able to take my wife on a rather nice trip away.

No one ever wants to start from the negative, do they? It’s always about love — not hate. It’s always about what the product or brand does for you, not what it might not do.

This has always bothered me slightly because I am my mother’s son. Therefore, I’m a bit of a contrarian. If someone tells me something, my first instinct is never to take it at face value. Don’t always be sold on the first thing you’re told. Received wisdom is the worst wisdom to receive.

I suspect it is because I’ve spent a lot of my career working with System 1 Research. I have also just published a book on behavioural science. And I spent a lot of my time looking into the work of Paul Ekman.

The six primary emotions

Ekman posited the much-shared theory (much analysed and validated) that humans have six primary emotions — Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Surprise and Joy. Recent work done by Rachael Jack and Oliver Garrod updated this to try and claim we only had four, but I’m still firmly on #TeamEkman.

Now, do you notice something about those emotions I listed that Ekman identified? At least four of them are very negative (and if you reframe surprise as ‘shock’ you can make a case for five). We know from loss aversion that humans are twice as likely to avoid a loss as they are to chase a gain. We know from Margee Kerr’s wonderful book — Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear — that fear is an incredibly powerful, incredibly motivating and often undeniable driver of human action. So why are we so often driven to make the case (without evidence) for love over fear? We hungrily accept that we should “accentuate the positive and el-lim-in-naaate the negative” without challenging it. I have no idea why, based on basic science of human decision making.

Consumers are just people who consumer things

Therefore, if fear is a huge motivator in terms of human decision making, then why are we all so quick to discount it?

Why not make the case for creating campaigns based on what we are worried about, what we fear happening, the negative — and then present our brands and services as the Red Adair’s swooping in to make sure this doesn’t happen?

We know from neuroscience that ‘social’ injury is as damaging to our psyche as ‘physical’ injury — we fear looking silly, we fear being wrong. Why not use the fear of what might go wrong and how it might negatively affect you to drive customers into your waiting and willing arms like a whale with a gob full of Krill?

Think about a B2B example: 70% of all big IT projects fail, according to Forbes. This costs companies billions annually. I suspect the purchaser would love to avoid the fiscal and social injury that comes with this. I suspect it might keep them up at night. Present your brand as corporate Ambien for the problem.

I love to love. I love to create brand love for brands, and I have done so for some of the most loved brands in the world. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t, where relevant, lean on the fear factor.

Don’t want the project to go south? Choose us.
Don’t want the hot date to go wrong? Wear this.
Don’t want the other parents in the WhatsApp group to slag off your food? Buy this.

The first brand I ever worked on as a strategist was Panadol. Panadol is simply generic paracetamol. You can buy 32 tabs of paracetamol, unbranded, at the newsagents for about 50p. The cheapest cost I could find for brand Panadol on a recent trip to Boots was £1.69 for 16 of them. So, the comparison would be 50p vs. over three quid for the same thing in the same shop. What am I paying for? Reassurance. It’s the same thing. But my fear that it just might not be is worth a fortune to me. That’s fear over love. I’m paying to feel safe.

I’m not saying don’t look for love. But I am saying don’t automatically shun fear. It’s a powerful motivator. And just imagine what could happen if you did ignore it, and your main competition didn’t. And they were more successful. And they started to eat into your share and nab all your best customers.

Scary thought, isn’t it?

Fear: powerful stuff.

Featured image: Tatiana Mara / Reshot

Kevin Chesters

Kev Chesters is the Owner and Strategy Partner of Harbour Collective.Kev started his career in account handling at Ogilvy in the mid-90s, making the transition into strategy in 1999. Since then, he has progressed through the ranks in a number of different strategy roles – client and agency, domestic and international, across every type of creative and media output through a diverse range of networks, micro-networks and independents.After working as Head of Marketing Strategy at BT from 2001 to 2004, Kev made the jump back to agency life as Planning Director at Saatchi & Saatchi. He joined W+K in 2007 and was appointed Head of Strategy in 2009. He was the lead strategist on Honda for a number of years and led the successful pitch for Three.Kev left Wieden in 2013 to become the Executive Planning Director at McGarryBowen, seeing the agency enjoy its most successful period ever, winning two Cannes Gold Lions and 16 out of 19 pitches.In 2017, Kevin joined Ogilvy & Mather as Chief Strategy Officer as part of a new management team, along with Harbour Collective Creative Partner, Mick Mahoney. The team was tasked with putting the London agency back on the map and succeeded by topping the New Business Performance League for 12 months and being named runner-up in Campaign’s Agency of the Year 2017.Kevin was then promoted to be head of strategy across all its disciplines at Ogilvy, before joining Harbour with Mick in May 2019.Kev is a regular commentator on industry issues, writing for publications including Adweek, The Drum and Campaign. He is a blogger for the Marketing Society, a member of the APG Committee, and has been a judge for both the APG and Effie Awards.Along with Mick, Kev is the co-author of the recently published book, The Creative Nudge.

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