Expert's Opinion

A Positive Spin on Negativity

By Scott Garrison and Paul Janssen, Skim | July 28, 2014

Consumers gravitate toward upbeat messages.

Ellen DeGeneres once said, “It makes a big difference in your life when you stay positive[1].” While it may be easy for a comedian or Dory from Finding Nemo to live by this philosophy, the fact of the matter is that sometimes it does rain on our parade. Sometimes it’s not possible to stay positive, even in the realm of marketing communications. Sometimes a brand or product must talk about overcoming a negative to maximize consumer interest and appeal.
A meta-analysis conducted by Skim, a marketing research firm specializing in the CPG, healthcare and technology industries, examined more than 850 marketing messages in 16 categories including personal care, home care, cosmetics and foods to identify the key drivers of success. The inclusion of a broad range of interrelated categories provides a universally tested framework that can be applied across multiple markets for developing winning messages. Researchers uncovered the winners and losers, but even more importantly, came to some valuable conclusions about the common characteristics of winning brand and product messages.
One of the main principles uncovered by the research matches Ellen DeGeneres’ “stay positive” philosophy. In general, positive messages outperform negative ones as consumers gravitate toward products that make them feel good rather than those that remind them of a negative experience. Also, from a branding perspective, staying positive is important as it helps build positive brand associations over time. While this principle of being positive is one to always keep in mind, there are times when a negative simply cannot be avoided. In fact, there are even instances in which addressing a negative is preferred, as long as the message is executed in the right way.
One of the most challenging categories for which to create a positive message is the anti-aging and anti-wrinkle skin care market, one that is expected to reach $345 billion by 2018 according to a BCC Research report[2]. The market primarily exists to help people address the sensitive topic of reversing the signs of aging. But why are people so concerned with preventing age spots, fine lines and wrinkles? The answer to this question is rather straightforward: People aspire to stay and look young.
Skim’s analysis revealed that in messagingit is critical to make a promise of value that addresses a consumer’s need or desire. From that perspective, it would be fair to conclude that anti-aging brands should focus their messaging on the aspiration of maintaining younger and healthier looking skin. While it is important to make this promise, it would present too generic a message if communicated alone. In other words, it would fail to establish differentiation in such a crowded market.
In addition to calling upon the proper desires and aspirations, effective messages are also characterized by having a fairly high level of specificity. By clearly describing the tangible benefits a product offers, consumers are more likely to recognize the message as relevant and thus build a connection with the product or brand. Most of the time these tangible benefits are positively framed, e.g. the moisturizing quality of lotions, the whitening power of toothpaste, or the styling strength of hair gel. But sometimes these specific benefits can be negative in nature, such as a laundry detergent’s ability to remove stains, a mouthwash’s ability to prevent bad breath, or an anti-aging cream’s ability to prevent wrinkles.

Older looking skin is often characterized by wrinkles. As such, avoiding wrinkles is a consumer’s tangible short cut to achieving the aspiration of young and healthy looking skin. Addressing the negative (wrinkles, in this instance) helps build a connection with consumers and is a critical component of making the message successful. Nonetheless, using a negative in communications remains a delicate affair and certain best practices can help prevent the alienation consumers.
First of all, marketing messages should at all times address the negative element in a neutral way. After all, “Get rid of your cracked and saggy skin” will most likely turn away potential consumers who do not want to be reminded in such an explicit way of the negative symptoms they are hoping to prevent. By addressing the symptom in a neutral way, it ensures that the marketing message isrespectful and avoids offending the consumer, a common misstep SKIM has seen in numerous categories over the past decade.
Furthermore, a negative message can be further strengthened by linking it to a positive benefit that represents the aspirations of the consumer. In the anti-aging example, this aspiration is to achieve and maintain young and healthy looking skin. It is critical to link the negative elements and positive aspirations to ensure the overall message leaves a positive impression in the consumer’s mind. For instance, “effectively combats wrinkles for young and healthy looking skin” is recommended over “effectively combats wrinkles.” One caveat: Sometimes there is not enough space to address both the negative concern and the positive aspiration in one message. In such instances, brands can cover the positive aspiration in a secondary message or bring it to life through creative copy.
Marketers can live by Ellen DeGeneres’ message of positivity, but they can’t always live by positivity alone. In today’s competitive world, creating a meaningful connection with consumers is more critical than ever. By crafting a message that addresses negative aspects in as neutral a way as possible, and linking it to a positive aspiration, one can minimize the potential for negative associations and create a powerful and lasting connection.


About the Authors
Scott Garrison is a London-based communication expert at SKIM. He is considered an expert in the field on claims and communication and regularly advises various  multinational clients on how to optimize their communication strategies for marketing initiatives. He oversees SKIM's claim development methods including claim generation workshops and claim evaluation, screening and selection methods, with a focus on emotional claims. He holds a degree in Sociology, as well as an MBA from the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University, with concentrations in marketing and corporate innovation. He can be contacted at or +44 0208 222 7714.

Paul Janssen is a vice president with SKIM, a full service market research consultancy in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201-963-8430 or at

Related End-User Markets: