Walking the fine line of fear in marketing

May 3, 2016

Marketers assume that people perceiving that something will affect them and that it will be painful would be enough to get them to take action, but it is not.

Using fear to sell water treatment products balances a fine line. Fear is persuasive, automatic and, to some extent, out of our control.

Russ Henneberry from The Daily Egg said that fear is built into our operating system as a defense mechanism from the old days when the most important question was, "Can I eat it, or can it eat me?"

Through the years, using fear worked to get people to take action. This can be seen in commercials advocating that consumers stop smoking, wear seat belts, use a condom, floss their teeth and use sunscreen. The crash test dummies did their job — we cannot fathom sitting in a car without wearing a seat belt. Many people quit smoking but may still get nauseous watching the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention commercial featuring a woman who had her trachea cut out. Are those scare tactics? Did they work? Were they ethical?

Before discussing ethics, it is important to understand why fear actually works in marketing.

According to research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), two primary considerations control how threatened we feel:

  • Perceived vulnerability asks, "How likely is it to affect me?"
  • Perceived severity asks "How painful will it be?"

Marketers assume that people perceiving that something will affect them and that it will be painful would be enough to get them to take action, but it is not. For example, according to the Water Quality Association (WQA) Consumer Opinion Study, 60 percent of consumers are concerned about health contaminants in their tap water. Only 28 percent are likely to purchase a water filtration unit. What will put them over the edge?

The HHS research shows that a third element plays an important role in deciding whether to take action to avoid a threat. Health self-efficacy refers to a person’s perception regarding whether they can do anything about the threat. In other words, the threat can be neutralized by taking some kind of action.

From a marketing perspective this is important because the marketer’s job is to convince consumers to buy a water filtration unit for their homes.

Homeowners are not paying $5,000 because they are just concerned about contaminants in their tap water. Homeowners will buy a system because it will alleviate those concerns.

Looking back at the WQA Study, 62 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay for a home water treatment system that would remove lead, while 67 percent want to remove biological waste. These percentages are higher than the people who were "concerned about their water." This self-efficacy piece tips the scales because it proves people want to know that they can safely neutralize the threat.

  • To sell a water filter, this is the bottom line value proposition:
  • People are likely to be affected by sub-standard water.
  • When it affects them, it will be painful.
  • They have the ability to neutralize this pain by utilizing a water filter.

In the water industry, marketers do not need to manufacture fear that does not exist. Enough fear exists in the marketplace. People fear lead or chemicals in their water and are concerned that children will suffer from water contaminated by pharmaceuticals or chlorine.

Every day, people are bombarded with articles about health and safety of the water supply. The situation in Flint, Michigan, is not going away in the near future. In the water industry, the state of our water is a silent sales person.

The right approach is to acknowledge the fear that already exists, empathize with that fear and then remove the threat
with solutions.

Marketers need to understand that messages of fear do not have to be negative. In fact, smart copy writers will flip the fear message upside-down and sell the opposite — peace of mind. In this case, the emotion of fear can be replaced with a sense of security to satisfy consumers’ psychological desires. Consider the following examples:

  • Parents have peace of mind knowing that the water for their new baby is lead- and chlorine-free.
  • Psoriasis sufferers know their skin will feel better using soft water.
  • Consumers know that drinking quality water will keep them healthy.

Many tactics can inspire action. Fear is just one method, but it is a very effective one. For some products and services, fear may be the only way to market effectively. For others, fear is just one of many angles to take with marketing, and it comes with a fine line between ethical and unethical use.

To best walk this line, follow the formula discussed earlier. Provide a solution to an existing fear, and do not try to manufacture fear or use scare tactics. Flip the message and sell peace of mind and security. Consumers are not stupid. Dealers should not promise what cannot be delivered or suggest that their system will solve a problem it cannot.

Dale "DataDale" Filhaber is president and listologist supreme of Dataman Group Direct, a Florida-based direct marketing company founded in 1981. She has trained water quality dealers in direct marketing and lead generation techniques. She is a WQA member and a guest lecturer at the annual WQA conference. Her new book Lead Generation Made Easier will help kick-start lead generation programs and boost leads. She may be reached at [email protected] or 800-771-3282.

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