Why it's time for brands to abandon negative messaging
- 06 February, 2020 11:17
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.
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
Tips to tapping positivity
Langley offers a few tips for marketers to instead engage positive emotions, for better messaging cut through. One advertising example she highlights positioned consumers as joining the 87 per cent of people who are non-smokers. The ambition was to pull people away from thinking themselves as smokers and towards thinking of themselves as non-smokers.
“Another example was Tiffany's, which was the first brand to have a same gender couple advertised for an engagement ring or a wedding ring," Langley says. "When you see people pull towards the positive, it changes how we show up, it changes our views.
“It ends up making us feel inspired and want to do something to change.”
Langley says marketers should message in a way that draws people towards a positive emotion. This includes not only the words, but also any music and imagery.
“Positive emotion like inspiration will draw me to want more of it. There’s been some amazing research around people's likelihood of setting goals based on positive language," she says.
“Rather than saying ‘I want to lose 10kg by Christmas, which might be a very smart goal according to the acronym, we're a lot less likely to achieve it. This is opposed to I want to feel my best and have increased vitality and be able to run around after my children. Framing goal setting around the positive is connecting me to who I want to be, not who I don’t want to be.
“The positive language will attach to the person I aspire to be, as opposed to just a behaviour that might be nice."
Langley points out a lot of marketing is about changing behaviour. "If we could just change the narrative into a bit more positive language, I think people would just get so much more cut through," she says.
"I think about simple things. For example, before the vote on gay marriage, the sort of stories that would tip people over were the positive, real-life examples of two people loving each other for 25 years and finally being able to recognised that fact, as opposed to the fear of God will punish you.
“Inspiring people towards the positive, the inspiring stories, the uplifting stories, they are what resonate and change behaviours. If we could change the narrative, we would get the shift in society we're looking for.”
Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia.