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Using fear to sell

By JAMES COAKES Published 8th May 2015
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Fear is a very powerful sales tool. Some today would even argue that fear can be used to swing an election with many explaining the Conservatives' surprise election victory as a reaction to the public's fear of a coalition between Labour and the Scottish National Party. How can you use fear in your own sales offering and, if you prefer to keep things more positive, how can you turn fear into a positive message?

Fear is essentially an emotion that is felt by a living organism when a threat is perceived. Psychologists suggest that it is one of the basic human emotions which also include joy, sadness and anger and all of these emotions are used in marketing in various ways.

Fear can be rational or irrational. In marketing terms you may need to create an irrational fear by suggesting that something bad might happen if your potential clients do not buy your product. One good example of such a fear which is expressed in a positive way is IBM's classic; 'Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment'. The technique became known in marketing as FUD - fear, uncertainty and doubt.

This strategy can be taken too far. In the 1990s Microsoft built error messages into its software to stop competitors from participating in its beta test programmes. These messages would use phrasing such as; 'Non-fatal error detected: error #2726'. The wording was specifically chosen to create FUD and Microsoft ended up facing an anti-competitive practice suit. So, while FUD can be useful it needs to be handled with care.

So how can you use fear, uncertainty and doubt in your marketing? There are various areas which may be appropriate. You can suggest specific aspects of your product with the implication that other products do not have equal benefits. An example of this is offering a free warranty. This carries the implicit message that things break, but if they do your product has it covered. Another example is environmental benefits - with the implicit message that using alternative products may cause harm to the environment.

When it comes to describing your company messages such as '10 years' experience' can create FUD about your competitors, who may be just as capable but do not have the same amount of experience.

Considering FUD can help you to work out what it is that is special about your product or service. Consider what it is that can go wrong for users of products like yours and then express that as a positive message by stating why that will not happen if customers choose you. Doing this can completely change your marketing because it will give you insights into how potential buyers think.

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