Don’t underestimate the power of negative thought

Promoting a product’s values will not get the desired results. Undermining the competition is a much more powerful way to boost sales, argues Sean Brierley.

Throughout the run-up to the General Election the favourite whipping boy of the media was not John Prescott, William Hague, or even Shaun Woodward, but negative campaigning.

In one opinion piece, ad guru Winston Fletcher wrote that top marketing companies, unlike political parties, sell brands by promoting their virtues, not by hurling abuse at their opponents. He is in illustrious company. Two months before the General Election Maurice Saatchi published a book, The Science of Politics, which was intended to guide the Conservative Party out of its malaise and help it regain power.

Saatchi may be one of the greatest living political communicators, but his book is a bitter disappointment. Instead of revealing the devastating communications philosophy that gave us the slogan Labour isn’t Working, Saatchi scratches around the detritus of the Tory party’s ideological past trying to come up with a big idea on how to rebuild it.

It does not make pretty reading. He says: “An informed debate about the wider role of taxation and government spending will help the Conservative Party to win electoral respect. Radical proposals can excite the imagination.”

All of those years working with Tory central office should have taught him that radical ideas turn the people of the UK off.

The Tory party has never been elected on the basis of its ideology, it has always been elected on the basis of people’s fear of the Left. The Tories did not win the election in 1979, Labour lost it. The Labour Party did not win the election in 1997, the Tories lost. And this week, the Tories will lose again.

The reason why the Saatchi thesis is so disappointing is that he appears to have been suckered into the Hello! school of marketing, which emphasises positive values and refuses to acknowledge, let alone challenge, competitors.

There is a conceit in the marketing world that goes hand in hand with phrases like brand power and brand loyalty. And it is: consumers consistently buy certain brands because they subscribe to, associate with, or just plain like their brand values. This is an extremely dangerous assumption. Brands do not operate in a sanitised vacuum they operate in the context of other brands in the market.

Nine years ago, Admap published a paper which included a blind taste test for Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. The blind test revealed that the majority of tasters – 51 per cent – preferred the taste of Diet Pepsi, with 44 per cent saying that they preferred Diet Coke. When the test was conducted with the branded drinks on view, however, Diet Coke’s preference rating shot up to 65 per cent and only 23 per cent claimed to prefer Diet Pepsi.

These results are supposed to indicate how powerful the Coke brand is. This view is symptomatic of a self-delusional paradigm in the marketing world, which champions brand power and ignores the context in which brands operate.

The number of don’t knows between the first and second test increased from five to 12 per cent. This would seem to suggest not the strength and power of the Coke brand but the weakness and paucity of the Pepsi brand.

Could it be that consumers are not buying into Coke but opting out of Pepsi? Could it be that the “power” that marketing people ascribe to their own brands is a result of the weakness of their rivals? If so, isn’t there more gain to be made from attacking the reputation of rivals than from supporting your own brand?

Procter & Gamble showed how successful negative marketing could be six years ago when it launched the shredded boxer shorts campaign against Persil Power. For the first time, Ariel gained market leadership over Persil. That leadership was lost because of a failure of nerve by P&G. Unilever should never have been allowed to regain market leadership after such a disastrous breach of trust with its consumers, but it did. Why? Because P&G went back to promoting Ariel’s brand values, which consumers could not give a monkey’s about.

While Lord Saatchi was busy forgetting everything he learned in the advertising world, his agency M&C Saatchi brought out some of the best competitive advertising in the business.

Last year, its campaign for NatWest attacking all of the other banks for branch closures was inspired. Bank marketing has been stuck in a rut for years. They were frightened to have a go at each other and the result was bland and inane advertising with straplines like “the Action Bank”, “the Listening Bank”, “the Bank that likes to say Yes” and naffest of all, “the Big bank”.

Overnight NatWest defined itself not narcissistically, but in the context of other banks’ performance. It acknowledged that there were other choices for consumers in the market and was prepared to fight its corner.

There is one good example of a brand that has placed negative marketing (not just advertising) at the centre of its business – Virgin.

The most consistent and accomplished exponent of negative marketing is Sir Richard Branson. The Virgin brand has almost become defined by its confrontations with rivals, from BA, through to Camelot and Railtrack. Branson and his communications chief Will Whitehorn have successfully managed to undermine their rivals in almost every market they have entered. It is this focus on the competition that has made the Virgin brand strong – not promoting the virtues of the Virgin brand.

Virtuous marketing leaves brands weak, vulnerable, and emasculated.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and the author of the Advertising Handbook

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