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Fear and Loathing in Marketing

By William Harris

FUD with Quote

Welcome to October — the one time in the year when we embrace and celebrate fear. Otherwise, during the rest of the year, we actively try to avoid fear, right? Not if we’re a savvy marketing communications professional. Because fear, as a marketing tool, can be a powerful motivator.

What Is Fear-Based Marketing?


Fear-based marketing uses fear as a trigger to prompt action. It plays on our innate human desire to avoid fear, which Google defines as “unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” We can experience fear in relation to things, experiences and relationships with others.

Because we tend to remember and have stronger feeling about the interactions we have when we are distressed, interacting with someone in a fearful state is a powerful opportunity to form a strong emotional connection with them. Sophisticated marketers know this and may leverage it on behalf of their brands.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, or FUD, is a fear-based marketing strategy used in domains such as public relations, advertising and even politics. FastCompany.com explains how an influencer can intentionally spread fear, uncertainty and doubt to make us stop, think and change our behavior to choose their preferred option over another more questionable option.

How Does Fear-Based Marketing Work?


When we’re fearful, we look for ways to feel less scared. Sometimes we do this by reaching out to other people for comfort and support. Sometimes we reach out to tried and trusted brands that deliver reliable, functional products and services. It’s natural to want to feel supported while we deal with our fear.

How much we feel fear depends on two factors: how vulnerable we feel to whatever the threat is and how severely the consequences of that threat would affect us.

The book Building Communications Theory defines four effective steps for using fear appeal in marketing and communications, and Buildingastorybrand.com gives a good example of implementing them to market pest control. What’s noteworthy is that this approach to using fear appeal not only talks about a particular threat, but it proactively also offers a solution for mitigating that threat.

  • Step 1: Communicate about an existing threat and who is vulnerable to it.
  • Step 2: Explain the need for action to reduce vulnerability to that threat.
  • Step 3: Describe a specific action to reduce risk to that threat.
  • Step 4: Issue a call to take action.

Fear-based marketing only works when there is trust. A brand must have already established that trust to successfully use fear as a consumer motivation. If there is no trust, consumers will look elsewhere — toward more trustworthy brands.

It also only works if consumers feel like the offered product or service will actually be effective in reducing their vulnerability to or the consequences of whatever they fear. Otherwise, there is no reason to purchase it.

The Many Faces of Fear in Marketing


There are many ways to use fear to motivate potential customers and ways that fear can affect our own behavior. Let’s look at some specific examples.

Example: Fear of Deadline Pressure

Fear of Deadlines_Paint
One of the most common marketing tactics is to put a deadline on a special offer or sale. Of course, we don’t want to miss out on a good deal, so if we know something is only available for a finite period of time, it creates pressure to take advantage of the offer before it expires. We may or may not actually need the product or service offered, but we like the exclusivity of getting in on something before it’s no longer an option.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are perfect examples of using fear of missing out to motivate you to buy. You’re given just one day to jump on a fantastic deal, often the deepest discount offered for the entire year. At other times of the year, key words and phrases like “last chance,” “don’t miss out” and “time is running out” cue you into instances of this kind of fear-based marketing.

Example: Fear of Experiencing Personal Harm or Injury

Fear of Harm_Paint
Self-preservation is a strong instinct in most of us. We don’t want to get injured or sick or experience pain and loss if we can avoid it.

Think about automobile safety campaigns of the past few decades. Buckle Up campaigns first motivated us to put our seatbelts on to reduce likelihood of injury and death in automobile accidents. Then airbags came along, and we were encouraged to purchase vehicle brands that prioritized our safety by installing features like front and side airbags. More recently, car companies are using technology like lane shift detection and automatic braking to sell us safer cars.

Or think about climate change. Although there are plenty of scientific studies documenting and predicting the dire effects of climate change, many people remain unconcerned about the issue because its effects seem far away in time or space relative to them. It’s often not until someone directly experiences some of the predicted effects — such as more severe or frequent storms and their consequences — that they consider making significant, relevant changes to their own personal behavior.

Example: Fear for Someone Else

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We’re motivated not only by fear of something happening to us but also to vulnerable people we love, like older family members or young children. Let’s take a look at Toddlermonitor™, a company which makes home monitoring devices for toddlers. Its website marketing speaks directly to parents’ fears that they won’t be able to adequately watch their toddlers and keep them safe at all times. “No toddler escape artists on your watch” is a message prominently displayed on their website. Read on just a little further and you get more: “Toddlermonitor™ was created by a Mom, after her son snuck out of his bedroom and their house one night while she was sleeping. This happens more than you may think. But don't worry, toddlermonitor™ is here to help!”

Example: Fear of Financial Loss

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The entire insurance industry is built upon our fear of significant financial loss. Home insurance protects our homes; car insurance protects our cars; health insurance limits our financial responsibility in the event of illness or injury; life insurance won’t keep us from dying, but it will provide some financial security for loved ones after we’re gone. Think about slogans like “You’re in good hands” from Allstate Insurance Company or “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” Insurance companies intentionally send you the message that they will be there for you in times of significant loss, helping mitigate the effects of it.

Example: Fear of Missing Out

Fear of Missing Out_Paint
Fear of Missing Out is so prevalent among us that we have an acronym for it: FOMO. Wikipedia defines it as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.”

Fear of Missing Out is one reason why membership-based retailers like Costco are so popular. By offering exclusive deals on all kinds of items only to members, Costco motivates consumers to join their “club.” It’s simple: if you’re afraid of not having the opportunity to take advantage of Costco’s great deals, you’ll need to join or renew. What’s interesting about Costco is how little traditional advertising it does relative to other major retailers. Fear of Missing Out is so powerful that Costco’s memberships almost sell themselves; customers quickly realize the value of the membership after a few shopping trips. With member retention rates of 90%, Costco proves this approach can work extremely well.

Example: Fear of Failure

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Fear plays a role not only in potential marketing efforts, but also affects how companies and their employees communicate and behave long before a product or service is ever ready to be marketed.

For example, every time a brand launches a new product or service, it’s putting itself in a vulnerable position. Yes, it could be the next great thing and generate millions of dollars in sales, but what if consumers don’t like it? Maybe there’s not really a market for it, or it doesn’t work as well as advertised? Such experiences could negatively affect impressions of the brand for years to come no matter how much money was spent on the research and development of said new products.

Fear of failure can keep even the best and brightest employees from speaking up and sharing their best ideas and opinions. It discourages risk taking and slows innovation. We’ll never know how many great products and services never made it to market because some person or company was afraid to put their idea out there.

Is Fear-Based Marketing Ethical?


Fear-based marketing works. It’s a tried and true technique for driving sales. But like many tools and techniques, whether something is ethical depends on how it is used.

Fear is a powerful motivator. When used well, for example, it can be a force for good. Think again about about the example of using fear of personal injury in automobile accidents to motivate people to buckle up their seat belts. Over time, it’s become the cultural norm to use seat belts, saving many lives in the process.

Creative marketers, on the other hand, understand the power of positive marketing and do not rely only on fear tactics. Instead of scaring someone by emphasizing the bad things that will happen by not buying a product or service, they take the more creative approach of marketing the positive benefits that come from using your product or service.

Example: Using Fear to Motivate Positive Change

Take a company like Invitae, which sells genetic testing. While some genetic testing companies choose to market benefits like learning about your ancestry, Invitae leverages our fears of not being healthy. Messaging geared toward patients on their website shows that: “Better health can begin with your DNA. Genetic testing can help you make informed health decisions.” The idea is that once you know more about your genetics, you can better understand what’s going on with yourself and then change your lifestyle and behavior accordingly to reduce the risks and effects of diseases or illnesses to which you are genetically prone.

Invitae Screenshot_Paint

Problems arise when fear is used only as a negative marketing tactic spreading doom and gloom. That brings people down and can be offensive, especially when taken too far. Watch out for fear-based marketing that uses shame, drama or guilt to trigger our personal fears.

Example: Going Too Far

Take the TV ad by Nationwide Insurance during the 2015 Super Bowl, which was narrated by a now-dead boy who wistfully laments all the things he’ll never get to do because he died in an accident. The commercial tugs on the heartstrings of viewers as it advocates child safety, but for many people, the ad went too far — it was too upsetting and depressing, especially during an otherwise uplifting, fun event like the Super Bowl. Nationwide was forced to respond to the negative feedback it got in social and other media by issuing statements after the fact explaining the ad and their intentions.

Nationwide Fear Ad_Paint

How to Assuage Consumer Fear


We’ve talked about how companies can use fear to motivate consumers and how they should be aware of how their own fear might influence their own behavior developing and selling products and services. But what about fears that keep consumers from making a purchase?

It’s normal to be scared of the unknown. Yes, the unknown can be exciting, too, but with the unfamiliar comes more risk. To get a consumer to try something new, marketers must overcome consumers’ fears about their products. We suggest the following proactive steps for doing so:

Offer A Free Trial or Sample — It’s not feasible for every kind of product or service, but giving someone a free chance to experience what you are selling can be a powerful motivator to try something. If they have a good experience, you might just get another customer out of it.

Share Testimonials — A product with many positive testimonials or reviews will seem less scary. Hearing that others have already tried something with success is always encouraging.

Develop FAQs — Education is one of the best ways to overcome fear. Teach someone about something, and it often becomes much less intimidating and thus less scary. That’s why many companies develop detailed FAQs, especially about relatively unknown or complex products or services.

Lower Prices — We all learned it in Economy 101: lower prices = higher demand. Lowering prices effectively lowers the risk in trying something because we have invested less and thus have less to lose.

Provide A Satisfaction Guarantee — The most trustworthy companies stand by their offerings. If a customer knows that he or she can return a product at no cost or get some sort of refund for exceptionally poor service should expectations not be met, it will feel far less intimidating to try something new. Satisfaction guarantees transfer the risk of the new experience from the consumer to the seller.

Fear Factory


So while you’re waiting around for those trick or treaters to come, take some time to notice what role fear plays in your marketing. Are you using it, and if so was it conscious and is it tasteful? Is there anything in your own self or company culture that could encourage less fear of failure and more innovation? And finally, what are you doing or could you be doing to break down your potential customers fears about trying your product or service?