Why you might want to be more negative in your marketing

Have you ever woken up on the wrong side of the bed?

Of course you have. We all have.

Do you ever wake up on the wrong side of the bed and have to be happy? How to interact on social media? Write an appealing blog post? Put together a lovable email marketing campaign?

Pooh. These are the times when you wish you could shut the world out, or at least channel a little bit of your inner snark. The good news is, you can do that every now and then, and your marketing results may even thank you for it! Sometimes it’s good to accept a little bit of negative. (Trust me – this will all make sense in a second.)

So there you go … if you ever want to wake up and shut the world out, you can take this out in your marketing (positively!).

What is negative marketing?

Negative marketing is a tactic that traditionally uses negative emotions such as fear, irritation, anger, or sadness to evoke a reaction in the consumer, often in favor of what a brand offers or against what a brand rejects or competes with.

Note, however, that negative marketing shouldn’t be used just because you want to get upset. Instead, it should be implemented strategically, taking into account one (or more) of these goals:

  • Empathy in customer disputes
  • Differentiate your brand from that of your competitors, especially those who may not be ready to take a stand or acknowledge certain truths in the industry
  • Cutting through the noise of “neutral” messages that may not resonate

If you are successful, the bottom line will make you remember your audience, which gives you the bandwidth to prove your brand as a superior alternative.

How to be negative in your marketing

How do you successfully implement this tactic? Here are some ways to be more “negative” in your marketing.

1. Create negative or exclusionary personas.

Let’s start with something that’s a bit easier to swallow than just totally grumpy pants: exclusive personas. Negative personas, sometimes referred to as negative personas, are similar to the opposite of buyer personas – they are the personas of the people you don’t want to target in your marketing.

This is not just about realizing that not everyone in the world is a potential future customer – it’s about realizing that your marketing is attracting certain types of people who will completely clog your funnel, waste your sales team’s time, and never customers will.

Why do you never become a customer? Could be a lot of things – they don’t have the budget, or they’re just fans of your content or your social media presence. Or maybe they will become customers, but they will cost you a ton of money. For example, they could have high acquisition costs or a high tendency to churn.

In that case, you need to find out who these people are so that you can make sure of that too 1) Stop creating content that attracts or attracts the wrong people 2) Let them read on and engage with your content to increase your reach. However, prevent them from being routed to sales reps using methods such as assigning a low lead score.

2. Use a little exclusivity.

This is the VIP red carpet tactic that we all know and love (or like to hate). When you tell someone they can’t have something or what they want, it’s rare that they want it much more. You know, the whole “play hard to get” thing.

This happens to be a common selling tactic, but marketers can use it too. Tell potential customers they can have an offer … but only for a limited time. Or just for the first 10 who reply on social media. You don’t even have to keep telling them what it is.

This tactic is especially popular with seasoned ecommerce stores as well. For example, ModCloth often sends me emails telling me that an item I like is so popular that it’s almost out of stock. “Oh no! Everyone else grab it! I have to get it before I’m left out!”

The moral of the story? Let people out now and then. When everyone gets something, it’s not that special. And when you become a VIP, those who get it feel very special. (There … we made a positive out of a negative. See?)

3. Create “negative” headings and titles.

I don’t know what this says about human nature, but there is an undeniable correlation between pageviews and negativity. Consider some of these titles you might find on a news site like CNN:

  • What you’re doing wrong while grilling
  • Could our favorite flavors damage our DNA?
  • Beware of parental over-participation

This is about clicks. No question. We all know the news has been going the negative road for years, and for better or for worse, it does because it is effective in drawing attention.

Now, there is no way you should throw away an inflammatory headline just to get clicks. If you want to go negative with your titles, you need to back them up with solid content that actually deserves your title. Here are some examples that worked very well for us:

4. Make a bond about a shared negative experience – but don’t linger.

Okay, now we’re getting warmed up! So you throw out some negative titles, but have you thought about incorporating that negativity into your content? Falling back on a negative situation in your content – especially early on – can actually help keep readers engaged and engaging. Some marketers are afraid of creating negative feelings in their readers, but it can actually result in a shared experience and unlock a level of emotion that some may not expect when reading marketing content, especially if you are a B2B marketer.

I mean, that’s why I started this post the way I did – getting up on the wrong side of the bed is an experience that everyone I know can relate to. And sometimes it’s easier to bond with someone through a shared negative experience than something warm and fuzzy.

But be warned – Once you have a bond with the reader based on a shared negative experience, it’s crucial to shift the mood towards something more positive and solution-oriented. People want to know that they are not alone (misery loves company), but most don’t want to dwell on the negativity.

5. Throw some bad guys.

Just as we can all bond through a common negative experience, we can also bond through a common enemy. Casting a bad guy has been a common marketing tactic for years, and I’m not just talking about the Hamburglar. Bad guys can take on more subtle forms and play on common tropes – the idiot, the slob roommate, and the bureaucratic drone.

These take shared experiences and personalize them to evoke the consumer feel and tell the story you want to tell. A good example of this is Genesis’ “Going Away Party” commercial, in which they use the “stuffy” party droplet and the “bad guys” it contains to demonstrate that luxury doesn’t have to be stuffy.

6. Take a stand on something you believe in, even if it is controversial.

Confident about your brand, your PR team, and your position on a topic can be a controversial stance on a popular topic. Controversial marketing is a risky game as in many cases your brand can be viewed as capitalizing on a problem just to sell your products. However, if done well, your brand can be considered socially responsible.

Controversial marketing can do a few other things for your marketing as well:

  • Position yourself as a thought leader (only if your thought was good – so try to make sure it is)
  • Help define your brand in the eyes of consumers and what it stands for
  • Promote natural advertising
  • Arouse strong positive and negative emotions in the audience

I want you to pay close attention to the last one. If you take a firm stance on a polarizing topic, you will end up with people you dislike for it. You will also generate some seriously passionate supporters. If you want to play the controversial game, be prepared for both because while some results could be really exciting for your brand, it is bound to lead to some backlash.

7. Use data to create a case study of why something stinks.

Let’s start with an example: [New Research] It’s official – a lot of salespeople hate their CRM. It’s getting props off the bat for its catchy negative headline, but it’s also packed with interesting stats like this one:

50% of sales executives say their CRM is difficult to use and 18% say they lost opportunities or revenue as a result.

You create a case of why one stinks (traditional CRMs) so you can show why something else is fantastic (the new HubSpot Sales Hub Enterprise).

This can be even more convincing when you have two data points that are very contrasting. The juxtaposition of positive and negative colors makes a pretty dramatic picture in the minds of readers, and the concise data points make it easy to quickly demonstrate evil versus good.

8. Make your competitors fun.

This is perhaps what most people think of when talking about negative marketing, but it is rarely carried out because the situation can be so delicate. On the one hand, a little healthy competition can be a good thing, especially if you want to position yourself as a better option. However, if done poorly, your audience may think less about your brand because of “dirty acting” or being too plain. Using false claims can also be used to ask for legal issues.

There are two types of negative marketing related to your competitors:

  1. Attack: Focuses on the negative sides of your competition’s offerings.
  2. Contrast: Focuses on the positive sides of your offers and creates the void. This is more subtle, but it still shows what your competition may be missing.

As a rule, it is easier for larger brands to market themselves negatively with their competition because they are already well known. Hence, the reward may be higher than the risk of highlighting value propositions.

Pepsi has a famous “attack” ad in which a child dispenses two Coca-Cola cans from a machine and stands on it to reach the Pepsi button.

Bud Light uses the more subtle “contrast” approach in its Special Delivery Corn Syrup ad:

This ad works because it’s light narrative and doesn’t get involved in serious mud fling (it just highlights one differentiator).

Even so, this case also sparked controversy as the company was sued for potentially misleading consumers by failing to recognize the difference between high fructose corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, which shows exactly why this tactic is risky.

If your brand isn’t a household name, it might be better to highlight value propositions and differentiators in a less risky way.

For example, some brands criticize competitors without naming them. That way, you make sure you’re not giving your competition free airtime while benefiting from ideas that your consumers know to be true. For example, Domino’s does this in its “Designed to Be Delivered” ad which doesn’t mention (but does imply) a single competitor:

9. Make fun of yourself.

Another, less risky way would be to channel this negativity inward. A little self-irony can be fun for others, make you appear more human, and make you feel better about your slips. After all, we have them all, and learning how to easily make your mistakes is important. Speaking of dominoes, one of the prime examples of the recent self-deprecating commercials is when Domino admitted that their pizza tasted like cardboard and what they do about it:

When negativity backfires

Even so, it’s important to consider whether your negativity is backfiring. Are you an unadulterated idiot? Will that negativity be lost for your audience? Does your buyer personality really hate that sort of thing?

For example, something that almost always comes off as completely petty and unnecessarily negative is an argument with competitors. I mean, think about how annoying political ads are. you sure don’t want to come out like that. I think some piece of advice from my childhood can sum up how you should argue with competitors:

“If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything.”

Yes, even after they started.

It’s also important to remember that any negativity that you resort to needs to be tempered with some positivity.

After all, I think the pursuit of inspiration should always be a claim for marketers. There is no question that marketers who can inspire people see incredible success in their efforts. In fact, I think if you are able to inspire people in your marketing, the effects will last much longer and are much stronger than any of these negative tactics.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2013 and has been updated for completeness.

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