Stop Using Fear and Blame Tactics in Your Marketing

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I’m talking about using fear and blame to drive sales. Fear-based marketing has been around since the days of snake oil – and likely even before that. Fear-based marketing leverages Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Instead of using positive statements to make customers feel like they’re going to fill a need with their purchase, the fear statements motivate by making the customers feel like they’re missing something. 
Don’t get me wrong. Not all fear-based marketing language is bad. According to some marketers, even popular, well-known taglines can be fear-based. 
One example is “Just Do It.” While I read this as a more positive statement, it could also be playing to FOMO – the fear of missing out on something because you didn’t just do it already. 
Another is Apple’s tagline “Think Different.” Again, this could be seen as supporting independence and uniqueness. When viewed through the fear-based lens, it could be calling out our desires to be unique – if you don’t buy an iPhone or a MacBook, then you’re just one of the masses. (Of course, having an Apple product now makes you part of the in-crowd – but that’s a subject for another episode). 
So – those are gentle marketing campaigns that could be interpreted as fear-based. 
Then there are the truly fear-based. I see these much more often with new business owners who feel desperate to capture the attention of their audiences. They’re also very common on click-bait ads. Here are a few I found in a 5-minute search: 
  • Gut Doctor “I Beg Americans to Throw Out This Vegetable Now!”
  • Urologist Reveals: Men, Fix your ED Easily by Doing This (Try It Tonight)
  • Size Does Matter (with a picture of a man’s fat belly)
It’s not just in the health industry – there are dozens of ads like this that target entrepreneurs, parents, and homeowners. 
  • If you’re not getting results like this {insert crazy statistic that 1 out of 1000 clients gets} from {insert social media platform here}, then you’re not doing it right!
  • Don’t shop on Amazon without this trick! 
  • “Funnels, chatbots, webinars, bitecoin [sic], ads, podcasts, livestreams, ecom, shopify, social media, personal brands, content…ALL these tools are for losers. Seriously. Wake the hell up!”
And then there are the ever popular “Only five seats left!” or “Buy now, or the price will double, and you’ll never get it this cheap again!” 

Where did Fear-Based Marketing Come From?

These fear-based marketing tactics came from a good place originally. Leveraging psychology and Maslow’s hierarchy, marketing and sales people realized that by using copy and sales pitches that helped people overcome their fears, they could drive more sales. After all, we all want to be happier, healthier, and more successful.
If you’re not familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs – here’s an overview. Each person has the same fundamental needs – from physiological needs critical to survival to self-actualization, including seeking happiness. It’s commonly represented in a pyramid, showing that you can’t focus on fulfilling the upper tiers of your needs until the basics have been met. To put it in simpler terms, you’re less concerned about your inferiority complex (from the self-esteem tier) if there’s a genuine chance that you could freeze to death in the polar vortex (the base physiological needs).Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Using fear-based marketing tactics (whether they’re leveraging scarcity or loss) ties into one of these hierarchy levels — the lower the hierarchy, the bigger the fear.
Fear is a great motivator, in limited doses. I’ve known people who started training for marathons because they wanted to be sure they could outrun a wild animal. (I do live in Colorado, so being chased by a wild animal bigger than a squirrel isn’t out of the question.)
Like many good things, those fear-based marketing tactics can be taken to the extreme (or the dark side, if you’re a Star Wars fan). The gentle nudges that said “whole wheat bread is better for you than white” turned into “You’re slowly poisoning your whole family by feeding them that bleached bread!”
The problem with those dark side messages is the feelings that they bring up in your customer. Customers regularly buy from and recommend brands that make them feel good. They want to feel confident, empowered, and smart. Not like they’re big dummies who have been slowly killing their families with white bread. You may win the first purchase with those messages, but the second and third purchase will be much harder.

Using Fear-Based Marketing Right

Now you know where fear-based tactics came from, and how they went wrong. Let’s talk about how you can effectively use messages that leverage fear-based language to connect with your customers – without needing a trigger warning. 
First, identify which of Maslow’s needs your product helps them fulfill. Does your product help them with basic survival, building relationships, or being a better parent? 
Once you’ve identified that need, you can begin to create messaging around it. How do people feel when that need is unmet? (If you’re not sure, this is a great time to do some market research and ask your ideal clients.)
On the flip side, also write down how they would describe it would feel to no longer worry about that need.
Now you can combine those into a powerful message which gets your customer to nod their head, thinking to themselves “yes, yes, yes!”
Let’s look at an example – a professional product photographer. 
His product meets his clients' needs for esteem – in particular respect. Poor photography makes your business look less professional – and your products can look second-rate. On the other hand, amazing professional photography can do the selling for you. (Who hasn’t ordered something from Amazon based on the photo, and then the product that you receive looks more like an alpha-tier prototype?)
What fears does bad photography (or no photography) bring up? They can range from ’not accurately portraying our product’ to ’the business fails.’ 
But good product photography builds the business owner’s confidence. They know their website, social media posts, catalogs and brochures all look amazing.
How do you take all this psychology mumbo-jumbo and use it to craft a compelling message to get that new client?
Take your product photography from yawn (that’s the fear) to yeah! (that’s a positive feeling)
In this (awful) example, you’re still using fear – pointing out their existing photography could be boring but ending on the positive feeling.
Now let’s revisit one of the fear-based examples I shared earlier. 
“Funnels, chatbots, webinars, bitecoin [sic], ads, podcasts, livestreams, ecom, shopify, social media, personal brands, content…ALL these tools are for losers. Seriously. Wake the hell up!”
When I finish reading that one – ok, let’s be honest, there was a lot more copy to that ad, but I quit reading because you just called me a loser. 
See the difference?

Using a New Lens to Evaluate Fear-Based Marketing Tactics

Now, let’s look at it one other way. I’ve seen this technique used a lot with mindset coaches and therapists who are helping change your inner dialogue. When you say something to yourself – like “Man, you’re seriously ordering the cheeseburger for lunch? You’re clearly not worried about what they’re going to say at the pool on Friday!” – imagine saying it to your 5-year old self. 
How would they react? 
Would you talk to them that way?
Put your website or ad copy through the same filter. Would you say it to a younger version of yourself? Or – even better – would you say that to your client, face to face?
If not, time for a rewrite. Focus on the positive benefits of your product, not what might happen if someone doesn’t buy. 

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Stop Using Fear & Marketing Tactics in Your Marketing

Stop Using Fear & Blame Tactics in Marketing