Carry a big stick

Fear seems a very negative way to sell things. And yet all the evidence from behavioural economists shows that people will do more to protect what they have already got than they will do to acquire more.

Most news stories start with a negative. ‘One in three Britons will die if x doesn’t happen’ or ‘Two-thirds of creative businesses will suffer from cash flow problems this year …’

People complain about the media’s negativity, but negative headlines grab the reader’s attention in a way that good news doesn’t.

A pay cut will infuriate you in a way a pay freeze doesn’t. The pain of losing your savings is greater than the pleasure of increasing them. Being beaten by a competitor feels more like failure than beating them feels like success. Much more time is spent discussing lost pitches than analysing wins.

According to Nudge guru Richard Thaler, losses generally hurt about twice as much as gains make you feel good. In his book Influence Robert Cialdini recommends you talk about ‘losses’ rather than savings … so you are losing money if you don’t do something, rather than saving money if you do.

Imagine you are presenting to a board of directors. Some directors will be up for your new ideas and opportunities, but as many – though they may not say it openly – will be wary of the risks and the extra work involved. You need the stick as well as the carrot to win the room.

But fear messages have to be accompanied with a realistic means to avoid danger or people blank them out.

The answer is that rather than starting with benefits you should start with problems or threats, then offer a solution followed by the benefits – the ‘Problem, Solution, Benefit’ narrative.

So not: ‘The new Home Safety Pack will help your elderly parents maintain their independence and save you and the NHS money’. Instead ‘Elderly people who fall at home lose their independence and often end up living with their grown up children or going in to a costly care home. The new Home Safety Pack reduces falls, expensive care costs and helps reduce the burden on the NHS.

The benefits are much less compelling if you do not spell out the problems. And yet an enormous amount of marketing communication puts the benefits first. The conventional thinking is ‘be positive’. That may work for things that people love, like fashion, music or culture, but is not very compelling when it comes to the majority of important but dull things people and businesses spend their money on.

So, carry a big stick.

But a word of warning. The problems must be real and provable. The fear must be justified and justifiable.