How to Ethically Use Fear in Your Marketing

I know what you’re thinking.

But no, I’m not going to advocate that you use fear-mongering in your marketing.

In fact, where there is immense fear, shame, guilt, or drama, there is often manipulation. That is just as true in our marketing as it is in our lives.

But fear-mongering isn’t the problem that 99.9% of business owners struggle with.

It’s the opposite!

We shy away from plainly telling our customers what bad consequences we help them avoid.

We fail to answer the question:

What can be lost if people don’t buy our product or service?

We think we’re going to come across as sleazy and manipulative, so we skip it altogether.

That’s a disservice to your customers — and to you. If your customers are truly vulnerable to a threat, you owe it to them to describe the threat, name the fear, and show them a path toward safety.

So here’s how to do that in a way that’s authentic and responsible.

We pay attention to conflict

Before we get into how, though, let’s take a step back.

Imagine a story where nothing bad happens. You sit down and watch an action movie in which the hero has to disarm a sparkler strapped to a watermelon in the middle of a padded room.

Who cares, right?

This is the exact question customers are asking when they consider your business. Why should I care?

If something tragic is being avoided, we care.

If you don’t let your customers know what negative consequences you help them avoid, you can’t answer that “so what?” question they’re already asking — and they’ll lose interest and walk away.

Loss aversion is highly motivating

But when you point out those negative consequences, your marketing becomes more engaging and persuasive.

In 1979, Nobel Memorial Prize winner Daniel Kahneman came up with something called “Prospect Theory.” In it, he posited that people are more likely to be dissatisfied with a loss than they are satisfied with a gain.

In other words, people hate losing $100 more than they like winning $100.

For us as business leaders, this means that pointing out the potential gains people can achieve with your company isn’t as powerful as pointing out the potential losses that might occur without it.

In fact, according to Kahneman, in certain situations, people are two to three times more motivated to avoid a loss than they are to achieve a gain.

Four steps of fear appeal

So how can we do this in a way that’s ethical?

Here’s a four-step process called a “fear appeal” from the book, Building Communication Theory. It’s a great guide.

Step 1: Make a reader know they’re vulnerable to a threat.

EXAMPLE: Nearly 30% of all homes have evidence of damage as a result of a termite infestation.

Step 2: Let the reader know that, since they’re vulnerable, they should take action to reduce their vulnerability.

EXAMPLE: Since termites can cause long-term damage, it’s up to you to protect your home.

Step 3: Let them know about a specific action they can take to protect themselves from the risk.

EXAMPLE: We offer a complete home inspection that will ensure your home is free of termites.

Step 4. Challenge people to take this specific action.

EXAMPLE: Call us today to schedule your home inspection.

I like this process because it gives us a direct yet sensitive way of naming a fear and then offering a path toward safety and stability.

That path toward safety and stability is key. As good marketers, we want love (not fear) to drive our messaging. And that’s just what we’re doing when we point out the pitfalls that could harm our customers and then show them a better way.

Treat Fear Like Salt

We’ve got to have conflict and potential loss in our marketing.

But we should be wary of using too much of it. Too many warnings about imminent doom will turn customers off.

If your entire messaging strategy is a recipe for bread, consider the aspect of “fear” to be the salt. We just need a pinch. If we use too much of it, we risk turning potential customers against us. If we use too little, however, our marketing will be dull and flavorless.

What Does This Look Like For You?

What’s the cost of not doing business with you? Here are a few of the common questions you can ask to pinpoint this for your brand.

• Could customers lose money?
• Are there health risks?
• Are customers (or their loved ones) in danger?
• Are there opportunity costs?
• Could their quality of life go down?
• Could their social standing diminish?

If you’re a financial advisor, for example, here’s a list of what you’re helping your customers avoid:

• Confusion about the security of their investments
• Returns that underperform and cost them money
• Being taken advantage of by a financial advisor
• Not having enough money for retirement

What negative consequences do you help your customers avoid? If you shy away from clearly communicating them, the story you tell won’t be as compelling, and it will likely cost you business.

Speak to your customers’ fears — as well as the way you can help lead them to safety. You’ll give your marketing a sense of urgency and stakes. Try it and let me know what happens!

What is unclear messaging costing your business?

Pointing out negative consequences is just one aspect of a seven-part framework that can help you clarify your message and grow your business. We’d love to walk you through the entire process at an upcoming Live Workshop.


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