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Should Your Marketing be Positive or Negative? Surprising Research Gives the Answer

We know we can assist our clients in two different circumstances: when they have an aspiration (e.g., “they desire an endless supply of chocolate”) or when they suffer with a problem (e.g., “they have run out of chocolate!”) Which scenario should we focus on, and how should we present it in our marketing and proposals?

Pretend you’re about to invest $9,000 into equipment for your consulting firm. A purchasing consultant claims that he can save you money. He offers two alternatives:

Alternative #1

He will guarantee you a savings of $2,400.

Alternative #2

There’s a 30% chance he can save you $8,000, and a 70% chance he’ll save you nothing.

Assuming he charges the same for both alternatives, which one would you choose? Don’t overanalyze it. Just choose the alternative you prefer.

Economists call this scenario a “positive frame” because it focuses on your potential gain.  According to a study published in The Journal of Economic Psychology, when a choice is in a positive frame, people generally prefer a sure thing over a risky benefit, even when the economic value is the same.

risk-v-guarantee+

Colloquially speaking, a bird in hand beats two in the bush.

bird_in_hand_v_2_in_bush

Okay, let’s run this same scenario again. You’re about to drop $9,000 on equipment. A purchasing consultant says that he can help you spend less. He offers the following alternatives:

Alternative A

You will pay $6,600 out of pocket for your equipment.

Alternative B

There’s a 70% chance your equipment costs will remain $9,000 and a 30% chance they’ll drop to $1,000.

Assuming the fee is the same, which alternative would you choose? Again, don’t take a lot of time. Just note your preference.

Economists call this a “negative frame” because it highlights your losses. (In this case, your “loss” is how much you’re spending.) The research shows that when the same problem is presented in a negative frame, people generally prefer the riskier option. They want a shot to reduce their losses more.

Hence, gamblers’ temptation to go “double or nothing” in an attempt to wipe out their debt.

risk-v-guarantee-

One Step Further

Because you’re a smarty-pants, you realized all four alternatives are economically identical; two alternatives involve risk and two are guaranteed. How people react depends on the frame.

Our learning so far is:

Positive frame → communicate guaranteed gain

Negative frame → communicate chance for less loss

But as consultants, we generally don’t guarantee gains or losses. Our projects include risk.

That means we only offer the less preferred alternative in the positive frame. In the negative frame, we offer the more preferred alternative.

risk-v-guarantee-4

Clearly this leads us to Alternative B being the best offering. In other words…

If we are not going to guarantee results, we are better off with a negative frame.
i.e., “I’ll minimize your likelihood of loss.”

I often assert that solving a problem (reducing a negative) is an easier, faster sale. The research backs that up. Whether it’s rational or not, clients react better to a chance of reducing pain (i.e., solve a problem) than a chance to make a gain (i.e., achieve an aspiration). Most clients, anyway.

clients-arent-economists

My Experience and Your Input

My own experience mirrors the research. For Ascendant Consulting’s new-market work, I’ve found the promise that wins the most projects is: “I can reduce the likelihood that you will go into the wrong market.” That’s a totally negative frame, and yet it works. Very well.

On the other hand, my frame for consultants is 100% positive: “I can help you win more projects from more clients at higher fees.”

Do you think I should rework the promise to consultants into a negative frame? Let me know your suggestion in the comments box below.


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17 Comments
  1. Joe Frisbie
    November 18, 2015 at 10:04 am Reply

    A proposal should reflect the personality of the decision maker.

    • David A. Fields
      November 19, 2015 at 9:09 am Reply

      That’s an interesting perspective, Joe. I would guess that very few consultants consciously change the wording of their proposals based on the personality of the decision maker. The expressed goals, concerns, etc. will naturally reflect the decision-maker’s thinking; however, would you change how you describe your approach based on the client’s personality? If so, what personality attributes would you take into account?

  2. Chris Doig
    November 18, 2015 at 10:13 am Reply

    A question: Should your fishing line be phrased to help the client avoid the negative?

    • David A. Fields
      November 19, 2015 at 9:11 am Reply

      Good question. No. Your Fishing Line should be phrased to point out the problem or aspiration. e.g., “I work with B2B manufacturers who are tired of slugging it out for market share.” or “I work with software companies trying to penetrate the Asia Pacific market.”

      The Fishing Line doesn’t generally include the promise…as much as we are tempted to do so.

  3. Praveen Puri
    November 18, 2015 at 11:13 am Reply

    “I can help you win more projects from more clients at higher fees.” might be phrased positively, but I think most consultants think of winning more projects as a problem, not an aspiration.

    If you said something like , “I’ll help you reach the top 10% earnings bracket for consultants”, then people would think that is an aspiration.

    • David A. Fields
      November 19, 2015 at 9:15 am Reply

      That’s a fair point, Praveen. From an economist’s point of view, the problem is in a “positive frame.” Problems can be described in a positive or negative frame. The research suggests that people choose the alternative with risk if the problem includes a negatively framed choice.

      Ultimately, it may be a false comparison because there’s no choice offered in our marketing materials

  4. Diana
    November 18, 2015 at 12:16 pm Reply

    David, thanks much for this thought-provoking post.

    I’ve found that a consultant’s reputation plays a huge part in determining the positive/negative choice. If the consultant (or firm) is strongly associated with outstanding, past business successes, clients actively seek the positive side of the deal. If the consultant has specialized in disaster recovery or prevention, clients actively seek the negative side.

    Of course, reputation can be boosted by self-promotion, referrals, etc. But, ultimately, consultants need to decide which kind of engagement (+ or -) that they prefer and excel at, then build their practice around it.

    That said, which do you feel is your strength: helping people be great or helping them avoid pitfalls? Your two lines of consulting may differ in content, but if they’re consistent in tone, each may significantly reinforce and energize the other.

    I’ve also been studying a related cognitive bias, Regulatory Focus, which directly affects gain and loss in decision making and negotiations. It has been a real eye-opener.

    • David A. Fields
      November 19, 2015 at 9:19 am Reply

      Thank you for the insights, Diana. It sounds like you’ve delved deeply into the research. In this case, there’s no difference in the engagements (positive or negative), but merely in how those engagements are framed. To echo Joe’s earlier point, when you get to the proposal stage the framing can match the client’s point of view.

      However, marketing copy must be decided in advance, and your comment about the consultant’s reputation is an interesting input. Thank you for contributing it.

  5. Supriya Desai
    November 18, 2015 at 1:14 pm Reply

    David,

    First let me respond to your question at the end of your post: It’s difficult to say yes or no until I read the options and gauge my reaction to them. I take your current promise with a grain of salt as I do with any promise of helping me increase revenue – there are so many variables in that promise, of which my capabilities are the largest one. However, I find it motivating and that is appealing to someone like me who is tried of trying to figure it all out themselves and wants more. But I can also see how helping me reduce some of the pain of being a solopreneur, and a solo consultant in particular, could be appealing as well. I’d be happy to respond to some options.

    Regarding your larger topic of positive and negative frames, I started thinking about my tag line, “Helping leaders and companies transform to achieve great things,” (a positive, aspirational statement) and how I might translate that into a negatively-framed client promise. But I don’t know what that looks like without sounding like a fear-monger, which I’m genuinely not nor do I want clients who are!

    Here’s what I DO know: I want clients who also aspire to more like I do, not clients who only want to reduce trouble or pain, and I think that desire should influence how I market my services. This would suggest a positively-framed promise is best for me. But I’ve also been where my corporate clients are and understand the reality of being in problem-solving mode most of the time – the appeal of someone who can come in and help you mitigate risks or reduce pain or just plain get stuff done is high. As a former corporate decision-maker and buyer, I was more likely to (and did) pay more for a longer period of time for a problem solver than an aspirationally-oriented advisor (someone to help us get to the ‘next level’ so to speak). Yet I continue to frame my value statements and promises to potential and current clients in positive terms, focusing on what is possible and not on resolving immediate problems. My nature is optimistic and I’m an opportunist when it comes to business, so to me, framing my promise negatively feels negative (go figure), fear-mongering and/or risky (to guarantee something…or come close).

    Perhaps the trick is in doing both – show a different way by solving an existing problem using innovative means – and being able to frame your promise that way. I still don’t know what that looks like:
    “I can help you reduce the risk of a failed transformation by implementing cutting-edge practices based on the latest research and my 20+ years of change experience.” OR
    “I help you adopt modern practices and leadership behaviors to reduce your chances of failing to change.” OR
    “I help you adopt modern skills to stay out of the 70% of failed change initiatives.”

    Is this what you’re getting at?

    • Diana
      November 18, 2015 at 4:52 pm Reply

      How about something like this?
      “I can help you change resistance into enthusiasm. I’ll show you how I helped other top-ranked companies trade their hit-or-miss organizational change methods for solid, effective strategies.

    • David A. Fields
      November 19, 2015 at 9:28 am Reply

      Supriya, thank you for thinking out loud… or in writing, as it were. Let’s take your current Fishing Line: “Helping leaders and companies transform to achieve great things.” Setting aside whether that’s a strong Fishing Line or not, a negative frame is challenging to develop because aspirations don’t easily lend themselves to negative framing. One version might be, “Helping leaders and companies that are trailing their competition.”

      The challenge in your final examples is that you’re including what you do. The most effective of those is probably, “I help corporate leaders whose important change initiatives are at risk of failing.”

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