Find out how brands use consumers’ fear to influence the buying decision.
Fear is the most visceral and primal emotion. It’s our survival instinct to keep us safe. Emotional fear can break through the mundane noise of life and have a profound, lasting effect on the human psyche. Fear is the most excellent persuader to make us do things and sometimes buy things that hopefully give us peace of mind. People can fear anything from missing out, pain, failure, losing, uncertainty, the unknown, or death.
If fear is the most excellent persuader, it is hard for brands not to use it, especially when it is hard to stand out in this noisy world. Fear has been the principal instrument for religions, politicians, advocacy groups, media, and brands. Without it, brands have little persuasive ability.
Neuroscience has found that our brain is always wired to search and seek safety, moving away from a perceived threat towards a perceived reward. Fear is precisely how the stock market works. For instance, there are five times more threat circuits compared to reward circuits in the brain. In a study, the University of Bath, U.K., found that the fear of failure motivates consumers far more than the promise of success. Dr. Gorkan Ahmetoglu, an occupational psychologist, says that people are more motivated by fear of losing something than the reward of gaining something.
What is Fear?
Fear can be experienced in two forms: physical and emotional.
Fight or flight is our physical response to fear. Where our body either stand its ground or runs for its life. Anxiety comes with sweating, rapid heart rate, and high adrenaline levels.
The emotional response is highly personalized, starting with a chemical reaction in our brain. For every person and situation, the fear factor is different. Some people are adrenaline junkies, thriving on fear-induced experiences like extreme sports or watching scary movies. The net outcome is a fear-induced positive. For others, these situations are avoided at all costs because these fear-inducing experiences are undesirable. It’s through emotional fear that brands try to convert us.
Fear in the Moment
When something scares us, we are on high alert. We quickly focus on the here and now. For instance, you feel your heart pounding in your throat as you fight for air. Precisely what a brand wants you to do — pay attention. It does not guarantee a sale, but hopefully, it gets your brand on their shopping list.
Several research studies done in the 1960s found too little fear wasn’t enough to create an action, and too much fear created a defensive reaction like denial. You have to find the sweet spot.
The relevance is essential. The fear portrayed must be related to the person’s psyche and phobias. If you recently had a heart attack, you will pay attention to every warning/danger concerning your health (i.e. diet, fried foods, smoking), especially if it was the cause of your heart attack. Targeted fear is more effective because your target is ready to listen and is desperate for a solution — your brand’s solution.
There is always a prevailing crisis that captures the world’s imagination through sensationalized news reports and documentaries. The broad topics range from economic catastrophe, environmental annihilation, health epidemics or pandemics, and political upheaval or war. Many brands use these fears to help promote their products or causes. Climate change has been a big one for the last decade. Today, the coronavirus has superseded all other worries. Next will be the economic fall-out and the fear of the unknown.
Micro fears are fears directly related to personal situations and individual psyche. The personality and behavioural profile model DiSC identified four common fears based on its four personality styles: Dominant, Influencing, Steady, and Compliant. Each personality type is motivated by different factors based on environment, heredity, and role models, but their underlining behaviour is influence by fear. In each case, there is a different common fear.
The two most common styles globally are Influence and Steadiness, closely followed by Conscientiousness. More women than men residing in the Influence (32%) and Steady (33%) styles, whereas more men occupy Compliant (30%). Interestingly, more Americans are Dominate (17%) or Influencing and significantly less are Compliant (13%). Of course, these numbers are very black and white. Most of us are a blend of these four styles. For instance, many brands focus on the fear of rejection and the fear of losing security/stability. Nobody wants to miss out.
Many advocacy groups want people to stop deviant behaviour like smoking, alcohol & drug abuse, drinking & driving, gun violence, unsafe sexual practices, animal cruelty and eating disorders. Telling people what they shouldn’t do is hard. Sociologist and author of How Fear Works Frank Furedi says “…advocacy groups use ‘surveys’ and ‘research,’ rather than the language of good and evil, to claim that a particular problem is getting worse and that unless Something Is Done, it will engulf the whole of society.”
In many cases, the target is foolish young men whose hormones are driving them towards risky behaviour. They don’t listen to anyone, not even their mothers. So why would they listen to a brand commercial or print ad? There is an urgent need to change their behaviour as death rates are highest among 16 to 23-year-old males (until they reach 60 to 70). In most cases, these campaigns try to use fear to knock some sense into these delinquents. Making deviant behaviour uncool is the goal.
While these campaigns win awards, I’m not sure they change behaviour. Don’t get me wrong; these are dangerous situations that deserve serious attention. But is scaring people to death sustainable? Fear mongering has been around longer than I’ve been alive. Religions are notorious for putting the fear of God in sinners. The fear they used years ago wouldn’t be beneficial today unless you are Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. So far, his ability to perpetuate fear seems to be — unfortunately — sustainable.
Society has become more risk-averse since the advent of helicopter parents. These parents sought to protect their children from everything imaginable from accidental injuries to terrorists, child molesters, sexual predators, drug gangs, and crazy killers lurking in the dark — and now pandemic viruses.
As people age, they become more risk-averse. An Economic Journal study found that regardless of income, wealth, and education, risk appetite falls as investors grow older. Millennials are also showing signs of risk aversion. Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that Millennials started saving money for retirement around the age of 24. In contrast, Generation X began at the age of 30, and Baby Boomers didn’t start saving until they were 35.
Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, says, “…most Americans live in what is arguably the safest time and place in human history, and yet fear levels are high…” Top of mind for many Americans is a devastating shooting in a school, mall, church, office, or at a social event.
If we critically look at the evidence, the top fears aren’t killing us like the media and social channels would want us to believe. To put COVID-19 in perspective, 634,000 Americans die of heart disease every year. At the time of writing, over 100,000 Americans have succumbed to COVID-19. My guess would be over 75 percent of the media channels are consumed with Coronavirus fear.
Our lives have become much more comfortable, thanks to technology, government systems, and economic stability, but people are more afraid than ever. Now that COVID-19 has entered the picture, fear is at an all-time high. Brands understand this fear. They are more than willing to show how they can help make your life better for a price.
Like Yin and Yang, there is a positive side to fear. Adrenaline junkies respect and reverence of fear; they see both the challenge and the reward of fear. They thrive on adrenaline by facing fear directly. Extreme sports are all about risk management and controlling fear in a way that isn’t debilitating. In a study published in Health Psychology, researchers found a correlation between extreme sports and transformational changes in confidence and sense of self. But, let’s be real, many of these daredevils die — fear or no fear. However, people, who can embrace their fears and face them head-on are reported to be happier, more stable, and able to handle life’s ups and downs.
Buying Peace of Mind
Fear is what keeps us alive. No shortage of fears exists in consumers’ minds. Brands that get it right tap into the instinct for self-preservation, which, at its core, motivates most of our decisions. Brands need to be there to help consumers survive and flourish.
Fear isn’t a weapon to prey on consumers’ underlining insecurities but more to help them embrace truth. It shouldn’t be condescending, finger-wagging or hopeless. Creating an emotionally distressed state should come with a definite benefit. In many cases, fear only creates a defensiveness reaction of denial, anger, disgust, and avoidance. No one benefits from de-moralization except the righteous activist who frightens and morally condemns people’s actions, shaming them into conversion. Consumers need to see a better future with courage, trust, hope, love, and solidarity. Healthy fear creates attention and breaks through the noise, but it must come with a sustainable solution. As British philosopher, Bertrand Russell once said, “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
Fear can be the starting point of a great brand relationship. Show them how your brand can help with practical information and resources, not just scare them to death.