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The fact that we are more attracted to bad news than good news is well-grounded in science. Our emotional connection to bad news is deep rooted in the amygdala – the small part of the brain that governs our internal neurological wiring.  Through evolution, the human brain has developed and perfected circuitry that was primed to seek, intercept, and prioritize bad news over anything else simply as a survival instinct. Even though the chances of us being eaten by a jungle lion today is extraordinarily remote, this powerful circuitry still guides what we are drawn to see and hear.


Deeply connected to our emotions, bad or negative news is like a drug that stimulates the senses. It has also sold particularly well.


Over the last few decades, television and print outlets have used this knowledge with success. Motivated by their relentless pursuit of attracting more attention (eyeballs) to drive advertising revenue, they act as pushers and carriers of the “bad news drug” and exponentially add to the spiraling, vicious circle. According to some media studies, there are as many as seventeen negative news reports today for every one reporting of good news.


But in the new age of social media, we’re seeing an interesting duality developing.


Researchers have found that when it comes to social as a medium, while bad news gets massive amplification through media, people are much more likely to share good news over bad. In his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On”, Jonah Berger explains that with social there is a sense of “self” in sharing information with others. No one really wants to be seen amongst their friends or peers as a “Negative Nellie”.  Rather,  we prefer to be associated with more of a “Positive Polly”  brimming with thought provoking, interesting facts or, funny stories– i.e., things that make us “look good” in the eyes of others. It’s thus ok to be voyeuristic towards bad news, as long as it’s not coming from us.

If we apply this phenomenon to business, brands seeking to build a deep, emotional connection with their customers through social need to understand this new dichotomy and apply it as they craft their messaging strategy. Below are three scenarios and my point of view for each.


First, understand that negative news about your brand, emanating from others, particularly your customers (complaints, quality issues, corruption, or mismanagement) kills brand equity. With social amplification, this can happen in an instant — with devastating effect.  When burned by bad news, companies spend years trying to build back their reputation (check out the list of the top 10 companies burned by negative press). No brand wants to be part of flameindex.com, a website that uses Big Data to provide a real-time ranking of the brands that are the most “in flames”, i.e., getting the most negative press right now.


My Point of View:  While most people associate social with outbound communication, social listening can be used to identify where the smoke might come from before there is a fire. The best way to counter is to act immediately and decisively before the bad news spreads. Own up to your mistakes. Fix problems. Be sincere and upfront. Respond personally and responsibly to complaints. Get your leaders in front of the news. 


Second, all is fair in brand love and war. The use of negative advertising or negative product placement to create a net positive for a brand won’t go away any time soon. Some do it by positioning their competitors negatively, and creating a contrast or differentiated position by presenting themselves in a positive light; others paint distressing situations like accidents, floods, famine, etc. and present themselves as the saviors. Politicians are masters at this approach.  Their campaigns often attack their opponent’s character flaws, or cite dire economic situations and impending calamities resulting from a competitor’s policies.  ; We are seeing these campaign style tactics gaining more traction within the tech industry (e.g. Microsoft vs. Google in browser wars).


My Point of View: For short term, time bound campaigns these tactics can be effective at getting mainstream coverage and delivering the desired outcomes to their proponents – such as getting a political leader elected to office.  However, this tactic can just as easily backfire if people sense malicious intent, or when brands lack factual evidence to support claims. When brands “go negative”, they should be careful to not let the negativity inadvertently reflect on their own brand as in this Domino’s Pizza example, where the word “failure” subliminally became associated with Dominos itself. Another extraordinary example where a negative perception was inadvertently created against its own brand was A&Ws third pounder burger campaign, which ultimately failed against Burger King’s quarter pounder because of a simple arithmetic misunderstanding by consumers.


Finally, in the longer term, remember that most people prefer brands that reflect aspirational and positive attitudes. Luxury brands have always created their premium standing in the market by appealing to exclusive, high end lifestyles and aspirations of consumers. But that alone won’t be enough to grow in the future of business. A recent Globescan study indicates that modern aspirational consumers are much more likely to do business with purpose driven companies – those that provide the aspirational table stakes associated with personal lives, but also act responsibly and in the best interests of society.


My Point of View: The future of your brand equity and its durability hinges on personal social sharing, where positive news shares and sells better.  With social in the mix, it’s more important than ever to develop a content strategy where you share positive aspirations, motives,   customer stories and engaging pieces of thought leadership supported with facts and research.  Paint a positive vision of what your brand stands for and how it promises a better future for everyone. Then create a movement where individuals can through simple, specific actions to rally support of the positive cause (example: the #icebucketchallenge) and let the magic of social sharing take over. 


How is your brand building equity using social?  What other challenges or opportunities lie ahead.  Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and insights.

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