kfc - fck

Being negative can be positive for your brand

The received wisdom in the world of marketing is that brand communication, from TV ads to shop POS, should always be positive.

In car ads there’s never any traffic or potholes. No delays or sunburn are ever mentioned in holiday brand social posts. Babies always sleep through the night in nappy ads.

People want to be happy and they like positive messages, so that’s how brands should communicate, right? Always say positive things about the brand’s product, don’t criticise the competition directly and don’t dwell on anything negative in the world.

What if I told you that this wasn’t true?

What if I told you that, due to counterintuitive reasons and people’s irrational (but predictable) behaviour, including an element of negativity in your brand communications can be a very effective strategy for grabbing your audience’s attention and triggering an emotional response (the fundamental requirements for brand comms)?

What if I told you that the right dose of negativity can even create affection for your brand?

Would you think I was talking rubbish?

Negativity Bias

The accepted exception to the positivity rule is charity and political advertising. Political advertising in particular often takes a negative approach and as seen in classic ads like this.

labour isnt working - ad

The reason that this approach works is that people have an attention bias towards negative information. You need look no further than a news website to see they are dominated by negative stories.

Like most biases our focus on the negative is hard-wired and there to help us survive. For our ancient ancestors it was more important to remember where someone else was chased by a bear than where the tastiest fruit could be found.

According to Paul Eckman, pioneer of the study of the field, there are seven basic human emotions. Only one, enjoyment, is completely positive. Five are negative. The seventh, surprise, can be either.

This means there is a lot more scope for creating a negative emotional reaction (at least initially) than there is a completely positive one. This matters because emotion is the foundation for building long term memories. Used in the right way a level of negativity could make your communication, and brand, more memorable.

A great example of how to use negativity within brand communication is Ikea’s Silence The Critics ad from 2019. A Christmas ad unlike any other, it taps into the fact that many people feel embarrassed about their home décor and furnishings which puts them off having guests.

Crucially however, there is a positive resolution to the story, with Ikea coming to the family’s rescue.

The Pratfall effect

Saying something negative about the context in which your brand can help is one thing. But being less than positive about your brand or its product is a bad idea, surely?

Actually, rather than putting people off, admitting shortcomings or mistakes can make your brand more likeable. This is due to the Pratfall Effect. This describes how, quite irrationally, highly competent people become more likeable if they are seen to make an everyday mistake, such as spilling a glass of water. It makes the expert more human and relatable; no longer perfect.

There are plenty of consumer studies out there saying that people want authentic and honest brands. Admitting flaws is a great way to demonstrate your brand’s honesty.

KFC famously turned the negative situation of running out of chicken into a positive story by owning up to the issue while keeping its sense of humour intact.

kfc fck

Brands have taken admitting their flaws even further. In 2019 Carlsberg confessed to being “Probably not the best beer in the world”, in a campaign that announced a complete product revamp to prioritise quality. The campaign created a lot of attention with brand awareness doubling to 10.5 on YouGov’s BrandIndex in the first four months.

carlsberg probably not the best beer in the world

A slightly different slant on the Pratfall effect is to turn a potential weakness into a strength. Stella Artois is “Reassuringly expensive”. The Canadian cough medicine Buckley’s tastes awful, which means you know it works. And, of course, Marmite’s taste isn’t for everyone.

buckleys ad - people swear by it - and at it. It tastes awful - and it works.

Harnessing the power of a negative can be a smart solution for gaining lots of attention and making your brand very memorable.

When it comes to your own brand, have a think about….:

Is there a negative experience or situation your brand can highlight, which it can then legitimately play a role in resolving?

Are there any flaws in your brand or product that could be flipped to become a strength that reinforces why people should buy it?

Leaning into unspoken truths can help your brand stand out from the crowd. We’ll be exploring this subject in more detail in our webinar on unpopular opinions.

About the author:

Ed Steele is a Senior Strategist at CreativeRace. Alongside developing client strategy, his broad experience across 13+ years in marketing includes brand management, retail marketing and insight & effectiveness roles. Ed has worked on brands including Asda, Co op, Greggs, Anchor and Cravendale.