Few modern events have demonstrated the effectiveness of fear as a motivator as plainly as the presidential election. But in actuality retailers have used fear as a marketing tool for years. Here’s how turning fear in the inverse, to hope, is benefiting major brands.
Hmmm, which is less scary, the plaid pants or the stripes?
Fortunately, whichever style we choose will have less effect to national safety as it might on the golf course. But as we inch toward November, I would not be surprised if more consumers are approaching everyday purchases with a little more apprehension than usual.
We may, in part, blame the coming presidential election. Few modern events have demonstrated the motivational power of fear as plainly as this campaign. However, retailers have used fear as a marketing tool for years. From cosmetics chains to DIY stores, retail’s marketers understand that even the most minor concerns (my teeth are yellowing) are just a step or two removed from a deeply rooted fear most of us share (no one will love me).
Which explains why even subtle fears can become significant motivators in the aisle (plaid or stripes?). The challenge, I believe, is that while fear can influence consumers to make certain purchase choices, it does not generate the kind of positive emotional experiences that result in brand loyalty.
What if we turned fear on its head, and marketed on hope? Think of well-loved brands such as Starbucks, Zappos and Trader Joe’s, which embrace a sense of community and belonging. Or Honest Co. and Lululemon, which inspire better living.
To understand how these brands do it, let’s first explore our fundamental fears.
Five Basic Fears
Psychologists identify five principal fears that influence human actions: death, strangers, the unknown, chaos and insignificance. Here is how retail marketers capitalize on them.
Death: Sellers of many vitamins, herbal remedies and whole foods benefit from the fear of poor health (our probiotics are gluten free!). Other retailers, such as auto dealers, may calm our fears about impending death by promoting their safety packages, or taking advantage when other car models are being recalled for malfunctions.
Strangers: Outsiders can attack us, woo away our significant others or even take our jobs. The company Nest, known for its remote control thermostats, in July introduced an outdoor security camera. Ring.com makes and sells a variety of monitoring products, including a video doorbell. Men’s apparel stores, meanwhile, can protect us from unknown professional rivals, by helping us look handsome and competitive in advance of the Ivy League’s incoming class of 2016.
The Unknown: Ever notice when shopping online and selecting a great pair of pants that the site will warn you, “Only two left”? We know what is in store today, but what about tomorrow? Scarcity is a key tactic of fear, as Apple and other brands have effectively demonstrated with “order now or you might have to wait” messaging. What if I do not buy the striped pants and they sell out? As consumers, we prefer knowing we have the power to manage our tomorrows. This is why we tend to fall into routines.
Chaos: We are hard-wired to want order, some more than others. Entire retail companies, such as The Container Store, benefit from the fear of chaos or disorder. Lots of DIY chains do as well, by promising to prevent our homes – and in essence ourselves – from falling into shambles. On a smaller scale, most household cleaning products appeal to our fears of looking messy and out of order.
Insignificance: Perhaps our most marketable fear is the one that taps into our insecurities, or of being inconsequential. A range of products from mascara to jumbo-screen televisions can be sold based on the fear of insignificance. Don’t want to be popular? Then don’t get an iPhone. Don’t want to be loved? Then drive right on by Victoria’s Secret.
Turn Fear On Its Ear
But is fear the secret to winning consumer’s hearts? I don’t think so, though there is no denying it’s an effective sales tool. This is why I think turning it on its inverse, into hope, makes much more sense. We are still recognizing a fear, but appealing to the brain’s more positive way of dealing with it. Apple, for example, has joyful ads, but they also trigger a fear of being left out.
So then, rather than a retailer marketing on the fear of death, it can appeal to wellness and security. The Honest Co. does this with its baby and household products, each of which is “safe” and eco-friendly. As a bonus, Honest delivers its products to members, eliminating worries of not knowing how the baby will act at the grocery store.
Our suspicion of strangers is calmed when retailers put a face on their brand. Think of Starbucks, and you picture a smiling barista making you a cup of job-winning inspiration (take that, Ivy League grad).
The free return policy at the ever-friendly Zappos.com quells our fear of the unknown, while our worries about getting our packages on time is resolved by Amazon Prime. And there is a reason why all Target locations follow the same store format – to cater to our love of routine (and our fear of the unknown).
Our fear of chaos is crushed when we are promised the feeling of balance and confidence –thank you, Lululemon. And our unease about insignificance is handily managed every time we visit Trader Joe’s or Nordstrom, whose staff members treat us as if we all are longtime friends. And they do so even if we are wearing plaid pants.
Which is to say that fear is embedded in all that we do. Plaid pants, striped pants, GMO free or eco-friendly, fear is leveraged even when hope is used as the marketing tactic. In many ways they are two sides of the same coin.
But how that coin lands will determine a brand’s lasting effect on a person. When it comes to choosing its motivator, a retailer should ask: Will I keep these customers longer because I scare them, or because I inspire them?
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here.