The fear factor: It's timeless, borderless and effective
A view from Scott Goodson

The fear factor: It's timeless, borderless and effective

Brands have an opportunity to tap into the passion and volatility of this new era, writes the founder of StrawberryFrog.

Fear. There's a lot of it around these days. In Colombia's recent peace referendum the fear of homosexuality was used to line up voters on the "No" side. The negative vote prevailed by a slim margin, just 54,000 votes. As with Brexit apathy, in part, was faulted. But, also as with Brexit, the nexus was really fear.

Fear is in vogue because "Fear is easy ... Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign," observed Rick Wilson a Florida-based Republican ad maker, in an interview in The Atlantic earlier this year. "You associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and uncertainty."

And combine fear with repetition and even falsehoods are seen as reality, basking in the illusion-of-truth effect, where repetition predisposes the listener to judge what he or she has heard over and over again as true. We have seen both governments and ad campaigns use repetition and fear to captivate the listener.

The fear factor. Reminds me of a game show. Which brings me back to Brexit. Apathy was at work, but so was fear, with the pro exit supporters stoking that fear with campaign imagery of thousands of Syrian refugees converging on the UK. Fear, not apathy, carried the day for those on the side of exit. And fear played a large part in taking Donald Trump from a field of 16 to the nominee to president-elect. Fear is a scary monster and has been throughout time. The original storytellers spun tales of fear as storytellers around the world still do today. For besides being timeless, fear is global, working across borders and cultures.

You see fears subtly played out in marketing where the ultimate message is, use this cream or you will wrinkle, drive this car or you may die, hire us to manage your money so you don't lose it. Looking at the use of fear and the creation of a movement or two in this past election season, however, and you have to wonder how the use of fear and movements will further evolve marketing.

Even before Donald Trump used fear to win the presidency, he first used fear to create a movement behind his brand. Whether you are a startup or a well-established brand, there's something to be learned from how he did this.

First, whether your pulpit is fear or faith, it cannot be the voice of the establishment. It is the era of the challenger and so the challenger you must be. In the eyes of the voters Donald Trump was a challenger brand as was Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton represented the establishment.

In the Woody Allen movie "Sleeper," an oppressive government used fear as a means of controlling its citizens. Then Miles Monroe and the underground radicals show up to fight back against the fear establishment.

So second, it is important to remember that in the era of the challenger, it is not enough to be for something, you must stand against something as well. Standing for and standing against something is important today—and especially so to millennials and the next generation behind them.

Against this backdrop, brands need to demonstrate their values and beliefs and these values and beliefs need to come from the heart. Jon Miller, co-author of "Everybody's Business," recently told me that uprisings should teach CEOS "to look at the big conversations in the world and ask themselves, what do we have to offer? Really standing for something isn't as simple as writing a check or pulling an ad budget; it has to come from the heart of the company."

In other words, your brand has to be willing to get out there and mix it up, to be involved in the issues its consumers care about it and show it by creating platforms for them, helping them form communities and setting up events where they can rally behind an idea or principle.

Brands that can do this can actually tap into the passion and volatility of this new era, instead of running from it, and can march with people instead of worrying they might soon be marching on you. Movements—at least, the kind of movements that gather around positive, creative, dynamic ideas—can help build a better, fairer, more sustainable and more interesting world.

—Scott Goodson is chairman/founder of StrawberryFrog and author of best-selling book "Uprising."