By Terena Chetty, 1Africa Consulting Head of Strategy. Brand messaging can be based on one of two dominant underlying approaches – negative or positive connotational language. A negative-based approach includes content that positions fear, for instance, “This is what could happen if you don’t…” It is a very effective marketing tactic to mobilise some sort of action or behaviour. But what effect does the converse, i.e., positive marketing content, have on consumers?


When it comes to scare tactics in particular, Todd Van Slyke, advertising instructor at The Illinois Institute of Art, describes it as “stunningly effective”. As he explains, “Fear appeals strike a nerve with people who have doubts about things or do not know about things.” It plays on our existing fears of the unknown, of the possibility that something or someone can hurt us, or the people and things we care about. However, leading on the basis of fear does not guaranteed success. It can actually cause the opposite effect, especially when brands go to far, or are insensitive about the way a subject matter is handled. There is a fine line between well communicated risks versus scaring people away.

…or the pursuit of happiness?                                          

So then, the question arises, can the positive framing of communication content can have an equally, or even more, powerful impact on audiences? A study conducted by Hearst UK, in partnership with Bournemouth University, captured real-time data related to how content affects and influences positivity in consumers. Positive content was placed in various publications including Cosmopolitan, ELLE, Good Housekeeping and Esquire magazines. The study found that 82% of readers immediately experienced feelings of upliftment and positivity.

But the key take-away for brands is how positive content affects consumer behaviour. According to Faye Turner, head of commercial strategy and insight at Hearst UK, the research revealed that when in a positive state of mind, consumers have a greater interest in brands and advertising, delivering tangible results in terms of engagement and purchasing behaviour.

Brand leadership

But its not just about making people feel good in order to secure a quick sale. Brands need to be more intentional about their position within the market, and the type of legacy they want to create. Its not simply about one positive ad – it’s about developing uplifting content and sharing stories in a way that inspires positive change. Inspirational advertising is a form of leadership.

Consider the current situation worldwide – on a daily basis, people struggle with issues such as mental health concerns, abuse, lack of motivation, loss, bullying and more. On a global scale we are trying to overcome challenges from climate change to discrimination to negative human behaviour in various forms. Inspirational, socially responsible messages can help in changing perspectives, behaviour and narratives. Even if one person is influenced in a positive way by an ad, it’s a start towards a better future.

Good business

Over and above the social impact of inspiring advertising, it makes good business sense. As research shows, positive feelings towards a brand drive consumer engagement and support of the brand. Consumers gravitate towards brands that are authentic, instill hope and display an interest in making the world a better place. People gravitate to messaging that resonates with them on an emotional level and aligns with things that are important to them.

A 2022 Swedish study examined how ads that promote body positivity affect consumer perceptions and behaviours. The study found that consumers are more likely to purchase if a company promotes body positivity. As a practical example, it therefore makes sense for health and fitness brands to move away from “body shaming” scare tactics, and instead promote the benefits of health, wellness and a balanced lifestyle. The products and services will still do the same thing, but it’s about positive positioning over negative – inspiring optimism and supporting positive change.

Empirical research published by the Journal of International Business Studies found positive correlation between advertising spend and happiness at country level (source: Forbes magazine), further reinforcing the notion that positive messaging supports business goals.

Don’t worry be happy

Brand communication should not focus on the messaging of a single ad in isolation with the aim of making a sale through any means possible. It’s about the positioning of a brand as a whole, in the long term, creating a legacy that a brand wants to nurture and grow in a sustainable and future-forward manner. This is what will drive long term consumer loyalty.

While both fear and aspiration are effective forms of buyer motivation, its up to brands to decide the emotional effect they would like to elicit through their marketing messaging. Back to the fitness example above, exercising at the gym could either be considered punishment for an unfit person, or a fun and exciting way to improve health and quality of life– depending on how a brand chooses to position it.

Consumers are in desperate need for hope and inspiration – brands are in a position to instill such optimism and positivity through strategic content that drives both upliftment and bottom-line goals.