Fear as a customer buying motive

Fears are powerful buying motives. Should we be scared?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Plenty of companies have built their brands on promises based on addressing fears – the needs for protection, for reassurance, for status, for achievement, recognition and so on – in a world where so many of those things are portrayed as being at risk. But how successful is fear as an emotive driver today and should we still be using it as a motivation to get people to buy more stuff?

First thing to be aware of – fear works. While some marketers regard fear as an old-fashioned way of changing attitudes and behaviours, a study published by the American Psychological Association in 2015 and based on 50 years of research shows that fear-based appeals are still effective, particularly when they contain recommendations for one-time only behaviours. According to the article, including a fear element more than doubles the probability of change relative to not presenting a fear motive or including an appeal that has a low fear component.

Consumers are action-oriented

Some of the reasons for this seem obvious. Fear gives people a reason to pay attention and therefore it instills an emotive reaction. Fear plays to our view of a changing world. And it seems we live in an age where fear is a significant component in the media. As someone remarked recently, the world is now presented to us as an ongoing sequence of dramas. So much is such a big deal that if your message lacks an element of primal response, there’s a risk some will feel that your brand could easily be lost in the noise. The temptation for brands to play up fear is also brought on by the observation that others seem to be using it successfully.

In fact, John B. Watson, a key figure in the development of behaviorism, famously said that effective advertising revolved around three basic emotions: love, fear and rage. Together they deliver 7 reasons why consumers choose to buy now.

Keith Payne, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, makes the point that the brain is a pattern-seeking machine. In the absence of patterns, we go looking for regularities to make our lives work, he says. Chaos and randomness stress us because they make us feel left out, left behind or out of control. Lack of pattern and predictability induce fear. Too much pattern and predictability, on the other hand, quickly incites boredom and rebellion. We all want to know where we stand. At the same time, we don’t ever want to feel stuck or being seen to be stuck. We fear that.

Social media has generated its own fears, particularly around failure.

The article I read that quoted Keith Payne also pointed out that Facebook et al have exploded notions of what is normal. Perfection is now portrayed ubiquitously as achievable and expected. In a time where so much is streamed to us as picture perfect, the fear of missing out or of not keeping up is driving many of those who interact with their world digitally to be highly anxious and chronically over-aware of other people’s achievements and opinions.

Another reason why fear gets our attention is because we have conditioned ourselves to believe that we must not just solve the problems that we face, but do so in ways that vanquish them completely. One of the key reasons for that, according to Brene Brown is we live in a culture with a strong sense of scarcity. We’re told we’re not getting enough sleep. We worry that we’re not getting enough done. We’re concerned that we’re not perfect enough. And we feel an expectation to deal with those concerns comprehensively; to use the resources that we have available to us to make the problem go away once and for all. But Brown makes the point that the opposite of scarcity is not necessarily abundance or completeness. Sometimes, it’s the ability to do enough, just enough, and then stop.

We don’t want to be lonely or to lose

Erika Dickstein cites two other powerful reasons why fear works to drive us to buy. Self-protection is part of the primal wiring of our brains. We fear being isolated or left to fend for ourselves, and marketers use the threat of social isolation to persuade us that we will be welcomed or re-welcomed to a particular group that we value. We are also subject to what behavioural economists call loss aversion. We fear that not doing something will generate losses and in fact those fears are what can generate a powerful sense of urgency to address something now in order to avert missing out.

If you are going to use fear as a motivation, Dickstein suggests you do so in three ways:

  • Quantify the cost of inaction. Help people recognise that doing nothing will cost them more than acting now.
  • Make it personal. Use stories to bring consequences closer to home than they might have felt otherwise.
  • Emphasise what’s at stake. Outline what a customer or prospect is putting at risk if they don’t do business with you.

Ultimately though, says Dickstein, the role of every marketer is to solve problems for their customers, and “there is a fine line between presenting losses and shaming people into accepting an offer”. People are looking for answers that resolve what concerns them; answers that they understand and can act on.

The flipside to fear: brands as navigators

If you believe as I do that brands are most effective when they address a need state simply, clearly and distinctly, then the path to being competitive may not lie in simply adding to the burgeoning fear factor. If they want to avoid being caught up in this escalating volume of drama, outrage and concern, brands may want to adopt a different approach. As Anne Bahr Thompson points out, millennials rely on their favourite brands to help them feel less anxious and more emotionally balanced and fulfilled in a world that is increasingly complex to navigate. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to show that consumers are much more susceptible to being nudged through the power of suggestion than they may think.

And so brands could, perhaps should, be making better use of that reliance to help them achieve a balanced response to the demands of their social media peer group and to develop more valuable relationships in a range of ways. I think her ideas are potentially applicable to all sorts of brands:

  1. Deliver leadership – in a world where people are concerned about quality of life, longer term security and family, brands should be looking for ways to inject confidence about the future and the planet and to embed broader societal solutions into their ways of doing business.
  1. Be realistic – brands need to help people connect with what really matters to them in life. The most powerful way they can do is by example – by being genuine and sincere themselves in how they interact with customers and potential buyers.
  1. Protect the relationship – brands need to respect buyers as people and treat data as a relationship building tool rather than as a sales platform and a means to stalk shoppers. Inevitably that means addressing the irony of a desire for more personalised interaction with a willingness to set boundaries around intrusion.
  1. Treat people fairly, starting with your own people – brands need to establish their credentials as good citizens by behaving fairly and openly, but they also need to build a deeper and broader sense of community by taking opportunities to involve more people in how they develop products and set and deliver policies.
  1. Defend and support wellbeing – in much the same way as brands need to consider how they can offer solutions for the world, they should also look at how and where they can help people function more effectively and in a more fulfilled manner. That may well mean looking out beyond what they feel they are responsible for (via their products and services) to a broader consideration set of human factors that they could positively influence.

Increasingly, it’s not good enough for brands to simply focus on what they want to get out of their relationship with customers and to use whatever means necessary, including fear of failure, to achieve that. While the pressures to deliver profitability internally may be as strong, if not greater, than ever, and certainly more complex, the onus for brands now is to participate in a much more rounded and considered way with those who buy from them.

If not fear, then what?

So if fear works as such a powerful motivator, how do we harness it without relying on it? As Martin Lindstrom wisely pointed out, what’s more important for brands is to use our fears as the starting point for helping people to better manage their lives:

  • Convert problems into assets – People always have problems. Rather than highlighting those, find answers to the underlying difficulties. For example, he says, no one knew they wanted an airbag, but everyone agreed they wanted safer cars.
  • Add a practical dimension to an irrational decision – if you want people to buy something that rewards them emotionally, find a way to include elements that seal the deal.
  • Don’t just play on the fear. Instead, look for ways to systematically remove it, so that people feel a sense of progress and personal achievement.

Brad VanAuken captured much of my perspective on how to best think about fear when he covered this topic a few years back: “People’s deepest feelings generally fall into two buckets: (1) anxieties/fears and (2) desires/longings. People try to avoid that which they fear and seek that for which they long. 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.”

Resisting the quick-wins

Agreed, and, to Brene Brown’s point, brands need to do so in ways that are practical, finite and provide a sense of closure and resolution. Brands should inspire customers to achieve what they want (by, getting back to Payne’s point earlier, perhaps providing them with a clearly  patterned and structured way to do so), but also help them set limits on where a sense of fulfillment ends, and unhealthy obsession begins.

That conversation – the one about brands’ responsibilities for responsible consumption – is only just getting started, and there will be some who fear it’s a step too far because it’s not the role of brands to define when enough is enough. But as brands like Patagonia have shown, calling time on what counts as *enough* builds trust and reinforces authenticity.

My (professional) fear is that unless brands choose to see their behaviours in the wider context of social responsibility, and check them accordingly, they will continue to play powerful emotions like fear for the quick wins they can get now, at the expense of the brand’s deeper, long term value and trustworthiness to customers.

Note: A version of this article was posted elsewhere under the title Fear: The Ultimate Brand Builder?


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