What do we think about “fear-based marketing”?

“Fear-based marketing” impacts the audiences’ psychology, confuses and influences them to take action to minimize that fear. This is a traditional communication method that has been used by organizations for years to push the community into changing perceptions, abandoning old habits, or converting into new consumer behaviors. However, should this controversial marketing method be thoroughly exploited to maximize business efficiency?

The “fear-based communications” method consists of three elements: information on potential threat that evokes feeling of anxiety, information on how target group can be affected by these threats, and finally, solutions to safeguard or reduce the negative effects. Unfortunately, businesses and PR practitioners only focus on promoting products, but are not interested in assisting the target group to encounter and overcome the fear.

For instance, 15 years ago, an FMCG manufacturing group utilized “fear-based marketing” to stir up the lives of Vietnamese and knocked out rival brands to regain market share. The story of this certain business has become the topic that forces marketers to ponder: Should we use such marketing tactics to raise the fear of consumers?

When consumers were bewildered with the news on soy sauce containing 3-MCPD which could cause cancer in 2005, this group launched a new soy sauce product line that does not contain this dangerous compound. With that new product, it witnessed a triple growth in revenue, from VND 660 billion in 2007 to nearly VND 2 trillion in 2008. A few years later, the group released a comparative experiment on two types of fish sauce with and without sediment, which helped it gained 60% market share.

Along with fish sauce, the highly competitive instant noodle market with an annual growth rate of 15-20% per year is an “irresistible delicacy” for this group. The enterprise soon launched instant noodles made from potato fibers which is tasty without fear of inner-heat, and instant noodles without the use of multiple-fried oil increasing the risk of having cancer and without harmful trans-fat. In less than 3 years on the market, instant noodle products from this group got 15% of the market share. And there were many more examples of “fear-based marketing” that this FMCG group made use of until now.

Should “fear-based marketing” campaigns be used?

It depends. Every communication campaign has its own advantages and disadvantages. The “fear-based communications” is not an exception. The aforementioned FMCG group has been quite successful to some extent when it launched marketing campaigns that directly targeted on consumers’ health awareness. Figures of revenues and market share of this group soared impressively. It can be considered an ideal campaign when communications work closely with sales, and in the end, it helps elevate revenue. Naturally, other companies would acknowledge the effectiveness of this method and imitate the success. When it comes to a manufacturer, good sales mean success.

On the other hand, “fear-based marketing” could be deemed as unethical to the business as well as to the society. Many people would concur with this method, while other wouldn’t. To some extent, I personally believe that “fear-based marketing” is an unfair strategy. Take another example: an enterprise wanted to launch industrial fish sauce made from chemical compounds played a trick on consumers’ mind by claiming traditional fish sauce the Vietnamese which has been using for ages is just toxic. Fish sauce is an indispensable condiment in everyday meals of every Vietnamese family, including those who live abroad. It is also a vital ingredient in Vietnam cuisine, and Vietnamese are proud of owning such an ethnic flavor that brought the name of Vietnamese cuisine to the world. Therefore, once fish sauce became the center of the communications battle, it would certainly affect Vietnamese consumers. Many fierce and controversial press conferences happened between the “side” of industrial fish sauce and the “side” of the traditional one, drawing the attention of the Vietnamese community. At a certain point, this “war” had created a significant bewilderment on consumers because they did not know what products were good for their health and their family members.

In addition to debates on these kinds of information, the company owning “industrial fish sauce” was doubted as they were accused of standing behind everything. Beside suffering from public anger and criticism, that company also had to encounter the fact that several influencers calling for boycotting of its products. “You reap what you sow” is such an appropriate verse to say towards this case as that company had applied similar methods to gain market share and compete with competitors within the same industry in the past.

It would be “should” if…

When “fear-based communication” is carried out vigorously and ethically, this approach will bring greater results back than just simply encouraging people to buy the business’s products and services. It is able to inspire people to change their mind positively and have a better lifestyle.

A fear-based marketing campaign would be considered ethical when it raises the society awareness correctly. For example, in order to persuade Vietnamese to use helmets when commuting by motorbikes, the Asian Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF) released a series of videos, posters, and banners endowed with visualized messages about regretful fatal accidents when driving without wearing a helmet or using a poor quality helmet. After a period of time, from the fact that people did not have the habit of wearing helmets on the road, nowadays, Vietnamese people have considered helmets as indispensable companions when they join the traffic. It is clear that the use of “fear-based communications” in this case is completely right and ethical.

Many other philanthropic campaigns have been carried out to raise awareness of the community, such as call for quit smoking or call for condom use for safe sex.

Still, there is on-going debate about whether to apply “fear-based marketing” in product marketing campaigns. This type of communication will not be negative if they are based on social ethics and business ethics goals each business is aiming for.

“Fear-based communication” is like a double-edged sword. And the question on how to use it, or what it is targeting is entirely up to the user. Some argued that the use of negative information is toxic to marketing activities, and “fear-based communication” is a form of mental intimidation. However, the most important thing that PR practitioners and businesses need to keep in mind that they have to be objective when sending out warning messages about potential threats. To a certain extent, “fear-based marketing” should not be fabricate or intentionally distort information to reap profit from fear and confusion of others.


Vi Mai is the Public Relations Manager at EloQ Communications. Vi has more than 10 years of experience in journalism and social media marketing and is a strategic planner for many EloQ projects. A Vietnamese version of this article was published in Thời báo Kinh tế Sài Gòn on Dec 25, 2019.

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