Fear Doesn’t Sell

Oct 2, 2010 | Sales

Fear is a powerful emotion. It’s up there with joy, lust and anger. It’s a basic, raw emotion that directly influences our behaviors. Fear triggers our fight or flight response. We don’t like being scared, so we do whatever we can to avoid it.

Many companies try to incent fear in order to drive their sales. Flip on late night TV, and you will see commercial after commercial trying to scare you. For example, a security company will present a scene of a home invasion. A robber breaks into a home while the family is asleep, but is ultimately scared away as the security system activates. The whole scene is designed to make you feel uncomfortable in your home, but let you know you could be safe if only you had a security system.

Fear is powerful, but only so far

On the surface, fear seems like an ideal motivator. Logic would have you think, if you don’t feel comfortable in your own house then of course you’ll want a security system. Seems logical, but here’s the problem. Do these burglary commercials actually scare you?

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not easy to scare people. Yes, The Blair Witch Project scared me, but that was a movie and I went in expecting to be scared. I have yet to be scared by a commercial, a marketing brochure or a sales person.

When a company tries to scare their customers into buying they have to create drama. They have to present big, over-the-top scenarios like the burglary in order to scare their customers. This exaggeration ultimately reduces the persuasive force of their message. We end up discounting the message and thinking, “That wouldn’t happen to me.” As Richard Perloff writes in the Dynamics of Persuasion, “The illusion of invulnerability is a major barrier to fear appeals’ success. If I don’t believe or don’t want to believe that I am susceptible to danger, then I am unlikely to accept the persuader’s advice.”

Look at all the ways fear appeals have been employed to try and change behaviors: smoking causes cancer; drugs fry your brain; drinking and driving could kill you; you can catch a STD if you don’t use condoms. But still people continue to smoke, drink, use drugs and have unprotected sex. Sure these outcomes could happen, but people naturally believe it won’t happen to them.

Get to the substance, give solutions

Instead of trying to scare your customers into buying, sell to their needs. Get to the substance.

The purpose of triggering fear is to increase your value proposition. The idea is to paint a compelling scenario, and thus increase the value of your products or services. I get the theory, but buyers see right through it. They’re too cynical and too media savvy to fall for these ploys.

Instead of developing fearful scenarios, focus on the solution. What services do you provide? Why do you provide them? How do they work? What can customers expect? How will you support them?

Help your customers solve problems. You don’t need to scare them. They will scare themselves. If they are compelled to buy, they already have a pain and they need a solution.

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Jeremy Miller

Top 30 Brand Guru

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