January 14th, 2020

The Difference between Fear-Based and Aspirational Messaging

Author: Laura Lynch
Laura Lynch
Director of Marketing

In headline copy, ads, and email headlines, the way you choose to send your message is as important as the message itself.

When visitors come to your website, or see an ad about your business, or read an email in their inbox, what kind of message is your copy sending them about your brand?

This may seem like a basic question, but messaging is one of the most fundamental components of brand strategy, and one that often gets overlooked by even the best copywriters. This happens most often when someone hits on a clever idea, and the cleverness takes precedent over more nuanced considerations.

However, successful brand messaging is one of the most powerful components of good communication. Wondering how it works? Let’s take a closer look.

Messaging is how you communicate your message: an example.

First off, I’d like to make a distinction between a “message” and “messaging.” A message is the underlying idea you are trying to convey to your audience—something like “you should buy new tires for your car,” or “you really want to eat tacos right now!’ But messaging refers to the angle you take as you try to communicate that idea across various platforms. In other words, it’s the difference between what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.

Maybe your message is something like “Our protein bars will help you build muscle.” That’s a simple statement, but you can use any number of angles to communicate it. In the old days, the typical approach was to employ a lot of macho speech (“Don’t be a wimp—bulk up with our protein bar!”), but this has largely gone out of style (for reasons I’ll get to later!). On the other hand, you could take a different approach: “Look like The Rock with our post-workout protein bars!”

Both these examples communicate the same thing: Consuming protein bars lead to more muscle. But the way the communicate that message is what we mean by “messaging.” And as you might have noticed, a messaging strategy is determined by the images and emotions you want to evoke in your audience when they think about your brand.

Emotion makes for compelling brand messaging.

There are many different emotions brands appeal to over the course of a campaign, but most boil down to something positive or negative—what we would typically classify as “fear-based” or “aspirational”—what the customer is trying to avoid vs. what the customer is trying to achieve.

In our protein bar example, the “fear-based” message was all about not being a wimp. Advertising has been plagued by these messages for decades, and in many cases, these ads have had a negative psychological impact on target audiences. A classic example of this is the way in which the beauty industry often targets young girls. Fear-based messaging that focuses on covering blemishes, hiding tummy fat, or “taming” natural hair has been shown to contribute to a crisis of self-esteem, especially among young girls.

Criticisms of this trend have led many businesses to adapt a different strategy. More modern ads, rather than focusing on aspects of a person’s appearance that he or she may not like, instead encourage that person to embrace the aspects that he or she likes most. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that “love yourself” is a more effective marketing strategy than “hide yourself.”

Of course, all advertising is trying to influence behavior, and it is hard to do so without creating dissatisfaction with the status quo. But the way the status quo is positioned is part of what makes the difference between fear-based and aspirational messaging. If the status quo is in the middle of a spectrum, then one line of messaging tells audiences they’re below average, while the other line tells them how to become better-than-average. Thus:

  • Fear-based messaging focuses on negatives. What it says to audiences is: You are falling behind, and this is what you need to do to catch up.
  • Aspirational messaging focuses on positives. What it says to audiences is: You are par for the course, and this is what you need to do to stand out.

In beauty advertising terms, it’s the difference between “conform to the standard” and “embrace your individuality.”

How budget affects messaging strategy.

Now, there is something here to be said for budget and the customer mindset. Customers and clients who are under a tight budget are less likely to make a purchase until it is necessary. Because they are highly cost-sensitive, they are less likely to be swayed by messages that sound to them like wishful thinking.

For this type of customer, a fear-based message might be the most effective. However, it will also be effective in attracting customers who are susceptible to fear-based decision-making. Maybe that’s an inescapable part of your business (if, say, you sell insurance. It’s hard to be aspirational about a message like “buy protection against your house burning down!).

Or, maybe you plan to convert a fear-based purchaser into someone with the breathing room to be more aspirational. (Maybe you start with financial advice on how to get rid of debt and move toward advice on retirements savings).

However, if you’re in a service industry, chances are a fear-based message will mean attracting a lot of clients with tight budgets and little likelihood of expanding that budget further down the road. If you’re trying to achieve something transformative for them, this could set you up for a tense client relationship.

Who do you want your messaging to attract?

So, who do you want to appeal to with your messaging? The choice between fear-based and aspirational messaging could make the difference between a fraught client relationship and a prosperous one, between dwindling sales and a record-setting quarter.

Appealing to fear is the easier route, and it’s one that many of us slide into without even thinking about it. If you look at your messaging and that’s what you see, then you’re not alone.

But we also believe that the other choice is better. By appealing to positives—hope, excitement, healthy ambition, pride in your company and its achievements—you stand a better chance of attracting clients and customers who believe in those positives, too. People who buy things that make them feel good are more loyal than those who buy things to not feel bad. And clients who invest in their aspirations bring a healthier perspective to their work relationships than those who only budget for disasters.

We believe in helping our clients achieve their aspirations. How can you help your clients achieve theirs?

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