Why it's time for brands to abandon negative messaging

We investigate why marketers needs to tune into positive psychology for better engagement

At a time of increased competition in almost every industry, getting messaging cut through has never been more important. And yet, as marketers increasingly personalise and try to engage with targeting, the consumer has never been more zoned out.

Why is this? One psychologist says the constant stream of negative messaging and a fear-focused media has caused consumers to simply switch off. To get that all important cut through, she argues positive marketing messaging is the way forward.

The example CEO and founder of the Langley Group, Sue Langley, always uses is the seat belt commercial used in the UK by Sussex Safer Roads Partnership.

"This framed car safety messaging as being about love and coming home to your loved ones safely, rather than as the blood and gore of a car accident, which is the more traditional way of getting that seat belt message out there," she tells CMO.  “The interesting thing is the government had greater success than before with this type of messaging, over the traditional negative methods.

“We know emotions change behaviour. The idea of positive messaging is not just using a positive message, but can you pull on a positive emotion as well to pull people towards the desired behaviour?" 

Another government example is a simple question asked: ‘I will be a voter tomorrow’, versus ‘I will vote tomorrow’.

"The people that were asked the question ‘I will be a voter tomorrow’ had a 30 per cent increase in voting the following day than the people who agreed with the statement, ‘I will vote tomorrow’. So again, the language was attached to emotion,” Langley says.

Positive evidence

The key is using positive words and messaging linked to positive emotion. This may seem counter-intuitive, as the brain has a negative bias linked to human survival. However, people are now so bombarded with negative messaging, unless it is immediate, we do not pay attention to the threat.

The relentlessness of negative messaging also makes many people feel helpless, and that they can’t act to help, so they simply don’t. After a stream of such constant bombardment, we also simply become numb to it.

Managing director of Suits and Sneakers, Anne Miles, is an advocate for neuro-diversity. She sees evidence communications are most effective when they are designed to reach more of the different thinking styles at the one time - and without polarising one or the other.

“There are 64 different metaprograms we all run in our minds when we process information and these drive us to make decisions and to act on them,” she explains. “This is on top of other factors such as our upbringing, culture, personality, and experiences. Only one of these metaprograms involves responding to negativity and problems, and only for a certain percentage of the world out there."

For marketers to deliver on behaviour change, whether that might be to do some good for the world, or just move people to a purchase, Miles suggests we can be more effective by being neuro-diverse in communications. This will also help budgets to go further. 

“Relying on scare tactics and negative messaging to drive change is only reaching a certain percentage of the population," she says. "I’d also say it is doing harm to wider humanity and creating a lot of self-doubting, even mentally unhealthy, people in our world of consumers unnecessarily.

“As a brand, that means you are losing a lot of your audience in a time when the customer is very clear about the values and level of consciousness they now expect from their employers and from the brands they buy."

Miles predicts we're about to see our biggest ever ‘vote by purchase’ era, where customers will take a stand on these big topics and buying tactics.

“To drive effective behaviour change without harmful negative messaging we do need to consider neuro-diversity as a viable solution, and brands better get on board before the customer votes with their wallets,” she says.

As Langley points out, we are hard-wired through human evolution to pay attention to negativity and threat. However, this doesn’t mean it prompts change, or even action.

“If you look at some of the stuff through the centuries, you know, with the Greek tragedies that everybody turned up to watch at the acropolis, or Shakespeare's tragedies, and even modern movies, a lot of it perpetuates negative emotions,” she says. “But what it can do sometimes, if we are consistently feeling these emotions, it almost numbs us. And then we just feel sad and don't know what to do with ourselves because we can't do anything, so we feel helpless, or we get numb to the trauma. It’s almost a hardening.

“To shift the mindset a little bit we can use positive words that indicate action. This inspires us and stops us feeling helpless and numb."

As Langley explains it, the human brain doesn't need any help leaping to a negative thought. "But we need something to pull us towards the positive, otherwise we can find ourselves getting caught up in the classic example with the news – the negativity and the fear becomes addictive and we can’t turn it off. This is part of how our brain is wired.”

Up next: Our experts offer tips for tapping positivity

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