Building a Brand Based on Emotions: Fear

Everyone is afraid of something but regardless of what each individual might be afraid of, there is no doubt that fear sells. Since few products actually solve a person’s fears but rather placate fear temporarily, brands that effectively evoke feelings related to fear can establish long-term relationships with consumers who think they won’t be safe unless they keep buying the brand. Anyone who pays for any kind of insurance is proof that fear sells for a long, long time.


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building a brand based on emotionIt’s important for marketers to understand that messages of fear don’t have to be negative. In fact, clever copywriters can flip the fear message upside-down and sell the opposite — peace-if-mind. In this case, the emotion of fear can be used with the emotion of security to satisfy consumers’ psychological desires.

Let’s take a look at some examples of generalized messages that brands use to stir up consumers’ emotions related to fear:

  • You’ll have to work until you die because you won’t have the money you need to retire.
  • You’ll end up owing huge amounts of money for medical bills, car repairs, home repairs, and so on because you aren’t insured or don’t have the products you need to keep yourself healthy and your home and car safe.
  • You’ll die too soon because you aren’t using products that add years to your life or because you’re using products that are killing you.
  • You won’t have any friends because you have bad breath, you have dandruff, you’re wearing the wrong clothes, you’re driving the wrong car, and so on.

There are so many ways to spin messages of fear, and that’s why it’s used in so many diverse industries to sell products and services. Brands that become synonymous with placating consumers’ fears are well-positioned for long-term success. For example, the sunscreen industry shifted its messaging from helping people get the darkest possible tans to helping people avoid getting skin cancer. By using a message that elicits feelings of fear in consumers’ minds, sunscreen brands turned what could have been a brand disaster into a brand opportunity.

sunscreen cancer ad

Identifying the Right Messages with Market Research

Of course, consumers can respond negatively to messages of fear, which is why brands need to conduct market research to determine where opportunities to address feelings related to fear are appropriate and how to address those feelings. A subtle and indirect approach like the Wells Fargo ad shown below can be more effective than the blatant messaging used in the SunSmart ad above.

wells fargo digital ad

It’s the marketing team’s job to gather the necessary consumer insights and perceptions in order to create the right brand experiences and messages that won’t offend the target audience but instead will motivate them. Concept ads and message testing are critical before ads and programs are launched as is ongoing performance analysis to gauge consumers’ reactions to the messages over time.

It’s also important not to jeopardize the brand’s long-term success on short-term shock advertising messages intended to stir up feelings of fear for short-term gain. These types of brand campaigns often do more damage to the brand than good. Instead of trying to make people scared, look for ways your brand can solve their existing fears (some of which they might not even realize they have).

For example, did anyone realize that the color of their teeth was offending people and causing them to lose friends? It’s probably safe to assume that less than perfectly white teeth wasn’t a common concern until tooth whitening products like Crest White Strips debuted and evoked fears consumers didn’t even know they had. In the long-term, this is a far more effective brand building strategy.

If you missed other parts of the ongoing Building a Brand Based on Emotions series, follow the links below to read them now:


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Images: Abdulaziz Almansour, SunSmart, Wells Fargo

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Susan Gunelius
Susan Gunelius, MBA is a 25-year marketing and branding expert and President and CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She is the author of 10 books about marketing, branding and social media, and her marketing-related articles appear on top media websites such as Entrepreneur.com and Forbes.com. She is also the Founder and Editor in Chief of WomenOnBusiness.com, an award-winning blog for business women.