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Fear and Marketing in the Age of COVID-19

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Fear. Let's talk about it.

The word "fear" describes the state of mind of someone who feels threatened. Someone who is fearful believes they may be potentially harmed because someone or something is dangerous to them.

It's no surprise that the COVID-19 coronavirus is creating a climate of fear.

But when can fear be a good thing?

If humans had no fear whatsoever, we would not survive for very long. We'd walk off cliffs, drown in our bathwater, and get bitten by the poisonous snakes we were handling because we didn't know any better.

But we do know better- and we know it deep down inside.

Each of us alive today had ancestors who faced potential death from venomous and predatory animals-including other humans. Death could result from falls or falling objects, from too much cold or too much heat, from poisonous plants, violent thunderstorms and more.

The specific reactions taken to these types of dangers helped promote survival. And, over the course of human evolution, the people who learned to fear the right things were able to keep passing along their genetic code, including their fear response.

The most basic, universal, genetically hardwired fear response can be observed when there is a loud noise or a sudden looming object. You can combine the two by hiding behind a door, then leaping out at someone with a roar. You'll be sure to see their startled, adrenalin-induced response-which may, unfortunately, include a punch aimed in your direction.

Note how quickly the response happens, without a thought: an instinct so universal, so necessary to survival it can be observed in not just humans, but animals as well. It's really quite a miracle.

People who learned to fear the right things were able to keep passing along their genetic code

Interestingly, the reaction can occur even when the startle is fully expected. Charles Darwin did an experiment centered on the face that people make when they are frightened: their 'fear face.' This wide-eyed, eyebrows raised, nostrils flared expression was, said Darwin, caused by an instinctive tightening of certain muscles. Darwin visited the London Zoological Gardens' and stood directly in front of the glass at the reptile house. Each time a deadly puff adder lunged at Darwin, he could not help his fearful grimace and instinctual movement away from the snake. He later wrote in his diary, "My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced."

Back in Darwin's day, some argued the reason for this was that God had given people a way to let others know they were afraid even if they didn't speak the same language. Later scientists such as Silvan Tompkins and Paul Ekman noted that the 'fear face' is extraordinarily similar across race and culture, no matter what the spoken language.

There's some obvious survival utility in quickly letting others know there may be danger about. But what about a fear that comes from longer-term perception of danger?

With today's worry about the COVID-19 coronavirus, there's no real biological response to the threat that is of any use. The 'fight or flight' instinct cannot be put into play. The coronavirus threat is not easily avoidable-it's not as simple as, say, leaving the vicinity of a dangerous animal, staying away from a riptide or the edge of a cliff, or avoiding golf in a thunderstorm. Everyone agrees this brand of worry and fear will continue for weeks and months-if not even years.

And while we know also the collateral damage the virus has already claimed-the mounting toll of the sick, dying, and dead; businesses already failing and trillions of dollars in investments magically erased-what we don't know is what the coronavirus-fueled future will hold. The plans of government serve poorly at best so far to allay concern because we are smart enough to recognize that the coronavirus does not recognize the laws of humans. Our sheltering at home-while socially esteemed- is possibly only a delaying tactic of little long-term use.

We are at the beginning of the crisis and the fear rising now is, quite simply, fear of the unknown.

It's a particularly gripping fear.

The makers of horror movies understand this. Think about Jaws, the Steven Spielberg film that virtually patented the word, "Blockbuster" as it created box office records throughout the summer of 1975.

One of Jaws' greatest strengths in building suspense and an ever-increasing sense of dread is the fact that we don't get a good look at the shark until deep into the movie. The first few victims die-and die violently-but the shark's presence itself is mostly marked solely by the signature theme music.

It's not until the third act- when Chief Brody is chumming bloody fish off the back of the boat into the water- that the beast makes its sudden appearance, looming large and alarmingly from the sea. Spielberg cleverly ensures the effectiveness of the scene by eliminating the theme music- thereby granting the theatergoer no warning whatsoever.

It doesn't matter now that it was less plot intention and more the continued mechanical malfunctions that drove the sparse appearance of the shark in the movie. The blueprint had been established: movie-goers fear what they don't see more than what they do see.

The fear rising now... is fear of the unknown

Author Stephen King-well known for his own horror chops- describes the fear of a monster yet unseen in his treatise on horror writing Danse Macabre: "What's behind the door... is never as frightening as the door itself."

There's a sound psychological reason for this. Once we have seen the monster, the dread ends, we're no longer paralyzed, and our brains and bodies can begin dealing with the actual threat. We've now entered the post-fear environment and are on our way to becoming useful again.

King described the feeling people have after finally seeing the monster as one of actual relief: "Pretty horrible, but I can deal with that..."

So, what does all this mean for marketers in this time of coronavirus? Let's consider some different scenarios.

Are you advertising a necessity?

If so, your job is a lot easier. Store visits are still happening for the everyday things people truly need and the things they crave to make their lives more pleasant. Let them know you have it, and if your pricing isn't mercenary, they should respond positively.

Keep in mind that any delivery or e-commerce options will increase the attractiveness of your offer and the response rate.

Don't be tone deaf

Recognize that people are scared by what is happening, and what the future might hold. Trying to do an activation offer- this weekend only, special pricing on x- isn't going to be very effective. It's also going to potentially make it seem like you either don't know what is going on, or just don't care.

People are looking for reassurance and a sense of certainty that things will get better. There's more to worry about right now than your limited time offer. You need to speak to your consumers as living, breathing people, not automatons to be coaxed by your clever activation verbiage.

Help consumers remember what you stand for... you have been there in the past, and you'll be there in the future

It's a great time for branding

You may not realize it, but your business and your product may be able to offer the very sense of reassurance and certainty that people want.

Brands that have built strong, long-term relationships with consumers over time are more valuable now than ever. Even if you are in a business category where competitors have pulled back, it's time to leverage your unique, memorable, and trustworthy brand image.

Help consumers remember what you stand for-and this is the important part-don't ask them to take any specific action right now. Just remind everyone that you have been there for them in the past, and that you'll be there in the future.

They'll thank you for it when the market returns. And, it will return.

To think anything else, you may as well throw in the towel now. Admit defeat-that fear of a monster yet unseen, the fear of the future- has done you in.

Fear of 'what if?' can prove to be more debilitating than any national crisis. 'What if?' lives forever, continuing to live solely in the future. It never comes through the door, always remaining unseen, therefore undefeated. Fear of 'what if?' can keep us afraid and wear us down into defeat if we let it.

This, truly, is the real danger we all face now.

Or, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt succinctly summarized in a time of worldwide warfare: "... the only thing we have to fear is... fear itself."