Thinking positively about negativity

Feb 18, 2019 | Publications

Brands have traditionally been built upon strong positive communications that are intended to drive engagement by evoking uplifting emotions such as joy, happiness and optimism.

One such brand that adopts this strategy is Coca-Cola. The very essence of Coca-Cola’s brand identity is all about joy and happiness. Their marketing initiatives are centred on the aim of brightening your day and bringing you smiles. Ad campaigns such as Hello Happiness, Open Happiness and Share A Coke which are characterised by their cheery, happy and smiley tones are quintessentially Coca-Cola.

Other brands such as Lego have employed similar strategies of upping their positively happy quotient. For instance, Lego has epitomised the ultimate positivity with their upbeat tune “Everything is Awesome” in The Lego Movie. Nike, on the other hand, has taken a different route towards generating positive vibes by building its brand through inspiring optimism with their use of hero stories.

Such is the prevalence of positivity in the marketing and advertising world, as we are constantly being bombarded with messages telling us to seek fulfilment through happiness or to rise up against challenges with optimism.

Brands often steer clear of all negative associations. The general perception is that any sign of negativity will harm your brand. Dove signalled a change in their communication strategy with their recent Real Women campaign. They deliberately shun negativity as playing up on negative body image is seen as a way of preying on our insecurities.

Reframing our conversation about negativity While creating positive vibes generally works in bringing a brand closer to their consumers, it misses out on tapping into a deeper human insight that our lived experiences encompasses a wide range of emotions and perspectives that includes both the good and the bad.

For instance, we are surrounded by messaging that constantly tells us that we have to be happy. Is there a tipping point where there is too much joy and we neglect the truth of the full human experience? Are we running the risk that this constant pursuit of happiness might hamper a brand from connecting with today’s consumers in a more authentic and meaningful way?

James Murphy, CEO of Adam & Eve/DDB, once talked about the need for deeper layers of meaning as society matures, “I suppose it’s about the maturing of the consumer society. Once you’ve got the things you need, then you’ve got most of the things you don’t need but desire, then you start looking for slightly deeper layers of meaning.”

If brands aim to be authentic, to connect and emotionally engage consumers, perhaps it may be useful to start re-thinking our ideas about negativity. Maybe it is time to shift away from a one-dimensional strategy of creating positive vibes and instead think about how the yin and yang of both positivity and negativity could come together to create real experiences of the human condition.

Power of leveraging on negativity: a new way of storytelling It might sound counter-intuitive at first for a brand to speak of anything negative. However, there have been a few brands who have recognised the power of leveraging on the bad to tell a more profound story of the good.

One brand that knows the potential for a powerful narrative to be a new way of establishing human connections by giving negative a positive spin is none other than animation company, Pixar.

Pixar’s hit Inside Out shows how clearly negativity can be leveraged. Negative experiences often inform positive ones, as sadness is a necessary condition with which we can truly understand the experiences of joy and happiness. It takes the pairing of these opposites, sadness and joy, and melding them into the idea of a single human experience to enhance and bring forth a deeper emotional connection. Pixar recognises this as a reality in human emotions with sadness and sorrow always being a part of their storytelling DNA.

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The marrying of two opposite yet powerful emotions is nothing new when it comes to storytelling in films. You can find a similar storytelling device in other popular films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, It’s A Wonderful Life and so on. This simply highlights the possibilities for brands to build deeper emotional resonance with consumers if they were to leverage on negativity as a brand storytelling strategy.

Don’t be afraid to challenge logic One well known example is Persil/Omo’s “Dirt is good” campaign which enabled the brand to transcend rationality by positioning dirt as something desirable through highlighting the insight “If you are not free to get dirty, you cannot experience life and grow”. Beyond the predictability of talking in terms of just dirt and cleanliness, Persil/Omo has broadened the conversation around laundry to one that encompasses curiosity and adventure, ideas that previously seem unrelated to the category. It takes a lot of courage to embrace the counterintuitive. However, they managed to do so and expanded the opportunity for the brand to tell more meaningful stories.

Use empathy to deepen the emotional connection Swedish rainwear brand Stutterheim knows that people often feel sad and blue whenever it rains. However, they do not set about to say that their raincoats will make you feel better or cheer you up because it will protect you from the rain. Instead, they demonstrate a high level of empathy by recognising that people do revel in this kind of melancholy as it is also an inspirational source of creativity. In turn, this provides depth to its brand identity and the brand story it wants to tell.

The starting point of their marketing strategy hinges on changing the relationship people have with rain. They made the connection between rain, the feelings of blue and sadness and a narrative about melancholy as the driving force for creative or artistic endeavours which Sweden is famous for. With communication visuals filled with unsmiling models against grey, dark and rainy backdrops, one would not instinctively think it is possible to use gloom to sell raincoats. However, by linking gloomy weather with a love and sense of pride for creativity, Stutterheim has succeeded in creating their own style of melancholic branding with the tagline “Swedish melancholy at its driest”. This has garnered them much attention and earned them some celebrity fans such as Kanye West, Paloma Faith and Dave Chapelle.

Give negativity a chance Indeed, negativity is often associated with the undesirable and it is presumed that there is absolutely no benefits to gain from it. However, it is also a space that is largely untapped and has a huge potential to be leveraged on to build far more powerful messaging for consumers and even be a big differentiator for brands.

Emotional branding is all about tapping into human experiences to appeal and connect with consumers’ desires. Changing our relationship with experiences normally associated with negativity such as rain, dirt or sadness would be one of the most profound ways to foster an emotional connection as it challenges our long-held beliefs or understanding of the world and in turn, fuels our curiosity. To do so requires a deep understanding of the human psyche and a brand that is able to do this successfully would project a highly empathetic image.

Brands would do well to seize the opportunity, give negativity a chance, leverage it and spin a new story.

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