Messaging Heads or Tails

When it comes to creating messages that have impact, conventional wisdom suggests that going negative gets results. Going negative gets politicians elected.  Going negative gets our attention.  Going negative is good for our survival, as an article in the Washington Business Journal pointed out.  But the negative note is not always the most powerful.  As great marketers know, appealing to our deepest yearnings and aspirations can also be a potent force to motivate action and enhance our influence.

Fear or Yearning

Prism of Value® thinking asks us to consider ourselves in relation to the people who matter most to our success. It asks us to think about what we contribute that is positive, joyful, and useful, while also questioning which hardships, risks or worries we reduce or eliminate.  One facet is aspirational and one is based on fear, but the positives we add and the negatives we subtract represent both sides of the messaging coin. When we seek to win business, persuade a colleague to our side, or get that coveted promotion or the new job, we need to understand which side of the coin to flip.

Don’t Die vs. Look Better

For years, dermatologists worked hard to get young women to curtail the use of tanning beds.  Their message was pretty clear: “You tan you get cancer and you will die.”  It didn’t work.  Being young and in their prime, young women couldn’t imagine dying. And even if they did think about mortality, they weren’t convinced it would happen to them.  Then, a study by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found an interesting fact: women were using tanning beds to look better. A nice bronzing, they believed, made them look healthy. When the doctors shifted their message to tell them that tanning could actually lead to premature wrinkling and leathery skin, they were able to break through and change behavior. Now they were speaking to what these women yearned for—to look their best.  The message spoke to aspiration not fear.

Similarly, Allstate Insurance sells itself as the defender against mayhem that could damage your home or your car, while GEICO delivers messages about lower costs and easy, quick access. Both are selling essentially the same products.  Both use humor. But one focuses on preventing harm while the other focuses on being easy on the pocketbook.

Messaging Heads or Tails

As you consider your corporate messaging, think about which side of the coin you will flip. Consider the following:

  • What will resonate most deeply with your target? Fear or positive yearnings?
  • What do your customers, clients, or associates value most about and from you?
  • Do you protect your audiences from something bad? Or do you deliver something that improves them or their circumstances?

There isn’t a wrong or right. Occasionally, you may even need to message both ways. The art of the messaging coin flip is to figure out which side works at any given time.