Written by Canon Wing

I teach entrepreneurs and organizations the proven action steps to stand out within their market, improve the perceived value of their business, and better connect with their audience through naming, branding, storytelling, and communication platforms.

April 8, 2021

Why Fear Tactics Are Damaging Your Brand, and How to Fix It.

Today we are asking the question: Are fear tactics damaging to a brand?

And the answer is yes! Fear tactics absolutely can damage your brand! But when you know the secrets to using it effectively, it can also be a major opportunity to grow your brand. That’s what I’m here to give you today: Three ways to use the powerful emotional trigger of fear without it backfiring on your brand. 

Okay, so here’s what motivated me to make this episode: I came across an ad for liquid hand soap the other day of a father reaching his hands out to pick up his baby. The baby is grinning and gleefully reaching back, and the two are moments away from embrace. It would be a nice moment, except it isn’t. In fact, it’s downright disturbing. And yeah, it got my attention, but I really wish it hadn’t. You see, the father’s hands were covered, every inch of them, crawling with cockroaches. Cockroaches! And the tagline read: “If you aren’t totally clean, you are filthy.” Ugh!

Talk about worst-case scenarios! I didn’t even stick around long enough to see the name of the brand…cockroaches give me the heebie-jeebies. Plus anyone who’s ever had a kid can tell you that…well, little kids are messy and mischievous. They touch everything! They put everything in their mouths! And for the most part, they wind up turning out just fine, okay? In fact, most research supports letting young kids be at least a little gross, because well number one, it just happens anyway, and number two, it’s good for their developing immune system. This ad is sensationalized to a Tee. Now let’s look at how this brand is speaking to their Ideal Individuals, which in this case are parents of young children. It strongly implies failure on the parent’s part, for not doing a better job of protecting their kids. It’s full of shame and blame, not to mention the recoiling disturbance of seeing hands that are infested with cockroaches hovering above a baby. But what’s most damaging about this ad, is that it’s dishonest. And while this image may result in a momentary spike in their click-through rates, it isn’t the kind of approach (emphasis on the ROACH) that will win Brand Loyalty. Whatever business you are in, brand loyalty is your business plan.

Most emotions boil down to love or fear. As is perfectly demonstrated by Cockroach Dad: “USE OUR LIQUID HAND SOAP OR SOMETHING TERRIBLE COULD HAPPEN TO YOUR BABY!!!” It suggests that without this brand, you should live in great fear that harm may befall your greatest love. Do you think this brand is using fear in an ethical and effective manner? Nope.

You see, people often won’t remember what they see or read, but they will remember how something or someone makes them feel. Brands leave emotional imprints on people, in the exact same way that we leave emotional imprints on each other. If a brand leaves you feeling bad about yourself, you aren’t likely to want to recreate that experience by returning to that brand again and again. And you aren’t going to want to tell your friends about it either. The only kind of relationship this kind of fear-mongering in marketing can create is a toxic one.

So yeah, using the emotional trigger of fear CAN damage your brand, by using it in the wrong way.

So why should we use the emotional trigger of fear at all? Why play with fire? Because when you do it right, IT TOTALLY WORKS! Let’s talk statistics. And here’s where it gets so good.

A recent WordStream study revealed that the vast majority of ads out there today are either neutral or positive. In fact, just 2% of the ads they studied were fear-based in their messaging or imagery.

Also, a study conducted by AdEpspresso reviewed over 37,000 Facebook ads to reveal that the majority of ads out there were, again, vastly either neutral or positive.

When I see these gaping wide statistics in marketing and branding, I get really excited, because what I see is an opportunity to Come Out of Nowhere. People aren’t seeing fear-based marketing being used very much at all right now, and that could be a beautiful thing for the brands who know how to use it subtly and responsibly and are looking to Come Out of Nowhere.

Fear is a great motivator and a VERY powerful call to action. It is an undeniable opportunity in marketing to grow your brand, so let’s get to it with The Three ways to use the powerful emotional trigger of fear without it backfiring on your brand.

The most common use of Fear Tactics is good old FOMO. The fear of missing out on a good deal, or a big sale, and everybody does it and we see it everywhere. “Only 24hrs left, hurry before they’re gone, last chance, limited time only, while supplies last…” these can be very effective as long as you don’t overdo it, and when you say these things you mean it, but I want to talk about some techniques that 98% of ads aren’t doing. The fear tactics that will help you Come Out of Nowhere and become an Inspiration to Millions:

Number One: Never Leave Them Alone In the Dark

You want to build your brand in a way that secures Brand Loyalty. You want to Build Your Brand like a Hometown. You want someone to see your messaging and feel like, “Yes! This is my Tribe. This brand is where I belong.” And you don’t do that by singling a person out and making them feel bad for what they don’t already know or haven’t already done. Truth is, that whatever problem your brand solves, everyone who needs your brand most, shares that same problem in common.

So whatever that problem is, the problem your brand is promising to help them solve, bring awareness to it through the perspective of someone who understands EXACTLY where they are coming from, what they are going through, and has totally been there before. Make them feel like they are home, and they don’t have to be perfect, they can just be themselves. The decision to buy is emotional, and when a person chooses a brand it’s because they feel like that is where they belong.

“Are you one of the thousands of people who are spending too much on car insurance? You’re in better hands with Allstate”  That is a perfect example of a subtle fear-based emotional trigger. It points out a problem, but it doesn’t make them wrong for having it, because 1,000’s of other people have it too, and it presents a solution.

“Stop telling yourself you don’t have time to eat healthy. I used to think the same thing until…” and that’s where your brand comes swooping in to save the day.

“Are you tired of wasting your money buying FaceBook likes—we were too, so we found a better way.”

Branding is always a conversation, never a dictation.

In each of these examples, the implication is that they are losing time, money, opportunity, unnecessarily, and that your brand is there to help. You never want to position your brand to look down its nose at your Ideal Individuals, you always want to be right by their side through thick and thin guiding them out of their predicament with the help of your brand.

Number Two: Value Every Vulnerability

One major principle of fear-based marketing is that it’s a lot easier to address a fear that is already there than it is to create a new one. Focus on realistic fears. Don’t be a schmuck like that liquid hand soap brand, peddling doomsday stupid Cockroach hands looming over your sweet baby, and when the worst happens, it’ll-be-all-your-fault nonsense.

Focus on realistic fears and only the fears that your brand is capable of averting.

The best way to determine what those fears are and how to help your ideal individuals overcome them is to Value Every Vulnerability (or VEV)

Wherever a person is faced with a purchasing decision, they are internally confronted by a series of limiting beliefs that I call obstacles to buy. The most common obstacles to buy are Time, Money, Ability, and Peer Pressure. It is the responsibility of the brand to determine which limiting belief, which obstacle to buy, is the most powerful deterrent within their Ideal Individual, and then help them ascend that limiting belief, that fear, with the help of your brand. Whatever that limiting belief may be, whether it has to do with money (Do I have enough money, Is this a waste of money, Can I afford this?) or Time (Do I have enough time, Is this a waste of time, I’m too busy to get the most out of this?),  Ability (I’m too old, too young, too short, too tall, not coordinated enough, not athletic enough, what if I can’t do it, what if I fail?) And peer pressure, (What will people think about me when they see me with this brand?), name that fear, and then immediately give them the solution. Value Every Vulnerability is a very important principle that is woven intricately into all aspects of building a successful brand, and if you’d like me to make a special episode about it, let me know—I’d be happy to do that for you, just email me with the subject line #VEV Canon@inspirationtomillions.com

People are always worried that they are doing something wrong, and you can address those fears head-on by getting them out in the open, and offering them a helping hand to conquer those fears, as opposed to pointing an accusatory and cockroach-covered finger.

Here are a few templates for fear-driven headlines that successfully use fear to Value Every Vulnerability, and I will include them in the description for you as well:

Here’s the one [BLANK] you’re not using that’s costing you [BLANK]

So let’s say if you owned a hair salon and you wanted to move some of your high-end products:

You could say: “Here’s the one styling tool you’re not using that’s costing you hours of your time.”

I’d click that. I know a lot of people who would click that.  And it’s using fear in a subtle but effective way that leaves the reader feeling hopeful that maybe, finally, someone, some brand has actually found a solution.

Here’s another great template for you to try out:

Why your [BLANK] is [BLANKING] your [BLANK], and how to fix it.

I feel like we’re doing Mad-Libs.

Okay, so now let’s say you own a gym, and you want more members to sign up for personal training. So then you could post:

Why your posture is slowing down your progress, and how to fix it.

You mean I could get faster results just by adjusting my posture? Am I using the wrong posture? What’s the right posture? This is still fear-based because it plays on the human tendency to worry that we are always doing something wrong, but it feels like help and hope.

Fear-based headlines like these are GOLD for increasing your click-through rate. Need proof? The title of this episode is “Why fear tactics are damaging your brand, and how to fix it,” and here you are…

And that’s the subtle difference between using fear-based tactics to create Brand Loyalty, or using them unethically to make people feel unsafe and pressured to take action. It’s always about them and making them feel good about themselves, making them feel smart and savvy for trusting your brand, and hopeful that they can enjoy a greater future with the help of your brand. Help and hope. It’s NEVER about making them feel wrong, alone, or in danger.

Number Three: Lead Them to the Light

One of the biggest problems I see with using fear as an emotional trigger in branding is just taking it too far. You shouldn’t be scaring the wits out of people. You don’t get people to buy more carrots by screaming at them that, “THE PEAS IN YOUR KITCHEN ARE TRYING TO KILL YOU!!!” That leaves people feeling grim about your brand like a dysfunctional home where people don’t like to be. If you make a sale or two, it isn’t a delight for them. It’s an obligation like, “I wish I didn’t HAVE to buy this hand soap, but if I don’t I’ll get my filthy cockroach hands all over my baby.” When you use sensationalism and fear-mongering, your claims will soon become too unrealistic to be believable.

Sprinkling in a little fear, and immediately pointing them to a viable solution is the best practice for getting the most out of using fear as a marketing tactic. So for this example, the most subtle of them all, the main idea is to just lead them to the light, even if they didn’t know they were in the dark.

Here’s an example: 21 Ways to Clear Your Pathway to Promotion

This headline suggests that there are obstructions in your career path, and leads you toward several potential solutions.

Here’s another one: These 12 common mistakes are sabotaging your car’s engine performance.

This implies that you may be doing unnecessary damage to your vehicle without realizing it. It is subtle but effective. It offers help and hope.

The most important thing to remember about using fear tactics is to never leave them in fear. You name the fear, you shine a light on it, and then you show them how they can conquer that fear with the help of your brand. Lead Them to The Light is about promising them a Greater Future, and you NEVER use fear-based tactics, without promising them a Greater Future that is free from that fear with the help of your brand. Once you make that brand promise, the secret to winning brand loyalty is to keep that promise, keep leading them to the light, over and over and over again.

So now you have The Three ways to use the powerful emotional trigger of fear without it backfiring on your brand. Be a helper and hope giver, and stand out amidst the 98% of brands that are too FEARFUL to tap into these powerful and formidable resources. And remember if you’d like more information on VEV, I just need you to type #VEV in the subject line of an email.

Since you stayed with me and, like a mastermind, committed yourself to getting all the value you can out of this article, I’m going to give you access to The Answer Key for Passing The Blink Test. Which is something EVERY brand would be wise to have a healthy fear about, because every brand who is currently on top, or making their way to the top has had to learn how to Pass the Blink Test. And many people refer to it as, “the dreaded blink test,” but you don’t need to buy into the hype, because now you have The Answer Key. I want you to use it to fast-track your brand’s progress toward building a vibrant and enthusiastic community of brand loyalists.

Remember, no matter what business you are in, Brand Loyalty is your business plan

Thank you so much for joining me! If you enjoyed this article, follow me on FB and YouTube. I release new videos every Tuesday and Thursday, so treat these episodes as a masterclass for becoming an Inspiration to Millions with Branding. And as always the way to becoming an Inspiration to Millions starts with our motto: Love What You Do and Love How You Do It.