A fitting image, as you'll soon read...

A fitting image, as you’ll soon read…

It’s an argument I’ve had many times…

Should you use negativity in your marketing and advertising?  I do it a lot (including in some of my biggest winners).  Others won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.  So, who’s right?

I’ll get to it in a moment.  But first, the back story.

I was at the grocery store a couple weeks ago, speaking with the store manager.  Somehow we got to talking one day, and he now leans on me for ideas about better appealing to the younger parent demographic.

He sees us walk in every week and spend hundreds of dollars on groceries, and I guess he wants more people like me.

I’m starting to have an impact.

I told him something we always buy at a competing grocery store chain is Grama’s Apple Butter.  It’s so good, that when a buyer from Cabela’s tasted it at a local farmer’s market, they immediately placed an order to put it in the catalog (and in many Cabela’s stores).

It’s a family business.  My wife’s Grandma is “Grama” — a Christmas card misspelling stuck and it eventually became the name of the business.  It’s a fascinating business.  And they make really good apple butter.

So I was talking to the manager at the grocery store — Kelly is his name.  I told him about Grama’s Apple Butter.  So he asked if it was approved by their parent company.  I told him I’d make a phone call.  A few minutes later, I had an answer, and a distributor name.  The distributor reached out, and by our next weekly trip Kelly made sure I knew that the Apple Butter — as well as (I think) Jalapeno Jelly and Chokecherry Jam — was on the shelf.

I also got a really nice text from my wife’s aunt Theresa who runs the jelly biz — they’d wanted to get into that particular store for years, and had only been met with resistance.

That’s definitely my favorite impact we’ve had on our main grocery store, but it’s not the biggest…

How I’m slowly transforming the produce section at the local grocer…

We buy organic produce.  Not all organic.  But a lot of it.

When we moved back to Nebraska in 2011 (after being gone almost exactly 6 years) we started regularly shopping at not one, but two grocery stores.

There’s the place we go for most of our groceries.  Then, there’s the higher-end place we go for things we can’t get at store #1.

Frankly, I like our primary store a lot better.  It’s a warehouse grocer halfway between a Sam’s Club and a traditional grocery store.  The prices are significantly cheaper on many items.  And all of those are good.

(No matter my income, I still appreciate making simple choices that regularly save me money.  More to set aside for later.  More to compound into the future.  It’s very Nebraska of me, I know.  But Warren Buffett living in the same house for his whole adult life is very “Nebraska,”  so I’m good with it.)

But none of that is why I like this grocery store better.

At the higher-end grocery store, the people are all nice.  The jingle for the store tells you that “there’s a helpful smile in every aisle.”  And it’s right.  But it’s very disconnected.  95% of the employees are wearing the smile for you — not because they’re feeling it inside.

Compare that to the warehouse place that’s our primary.

We have friends throughout the store.  In the produce section, one woman talks to my kids just about ever week.  We know she’s finishing up her Master’s in Ag Sciences, and she asks my kids about Harry Potter and Star Wars, and summer break and swim team.

We have a favorite cashier who regularly just asks about our life, and shares about hers.  Always a friendly smile that comes from deep inside, when she greets us with a, “Hi Family!”

Then there’s the manager who knows me by name — and regularly asks what they could be doing better.

It’s a store full of people who care.  Not everyone.  But it’s in the culture to be more connected to the customers.

And so it should come as no surprise that since we moved back in 2011 and told them that we bounce between two grocery stores largely because this store doesn’t carry enough organic, we’ve been listened to.

Even more so over these last 5 years as no fewer than 3 “health” and “natural” grocers have moved in within a mile or so as neighbors of these two stores.  There’s a Whole Foods, yes — right at the edge of our neighborhood.  And two more lesser-known chains that specialize in organic, natural, and similar fare.

The writing is on the wall, yes — but I’m a voice in support of the trend.

And so I’ve talked to our friends at the warehouse store — which had almost no organic produce when we moved back to Lincoln in 2011.  I’ve told them what we’ve gone elsewhere to find.

And slowly, they’ve started to add more and more organic produce.

Which brings me to the main point of this essay.

I recently told the store manager how he could use the “Dirty Dozen” list to sell more organic produce…

Organic produce tends to be more expensive.  Also, a bit higher margin.  It commands a premium throughout the supply chain and all the way down to the consumer level.  Because it’s supposedly better for you — and contains less toxins.

(We’ll leave all scientific arguments for another time and place — this is the emotion and logic behind why people buy organic though.)

Since that’s one of the main drivers of people buying organic food, it’s something that gets a lot of attention.  And every year, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list they call the Dirty Dozen.

The Dirty Dozen is the 12 produce that — when you buy conventionally-farmed produce — give you the most exposure to pesticides in your diet.

At one point I read the stat (though I can’t find it today), that simply by buying just the Dirty Dozen as organic, and everything else as conventionally-farmed, you reduce something like 80% of the pesticide exposure in your diet.

And so that’s what we decided to do — especially while our kids are young and most vulnerable to diet-derived pesticide exposure.

If a piece of produce is on the Dirty Dozen, we always buy it organic.  Even if it means stopping at multiple grocery stores.  We figure a few extra minutes today is worth not getting cancer, and especially not giving it to our kids.  (Many common pesticides are known carcinogens at certain quantities.)

Over the last few years, more and more of the Dirty Dozen has shown up at our primary grocery store, as organic produce.  Which means we’re buying more and more of our produce there.

On the same day as I recommended Grama’s Apple Butter, I talked to Kelly, the store manager, about the Dirty Dozen list.

I recommended to him that he actually post the list next to the organic section.  Along with a description of what the list was, and why you’d want to buy these particular items organic.  (I’ve recommended this to multiple grocers.)

He liked the idea of the list.  But he mentioned that they couldn’t use its name.  He said they had a policy against negative marketing.  Everything has to be presented with a positive slant.

His biggest concern?  Making the people who buy regular produce feel guilty.

I get his point.  I get the logic.  But at the same time, it’s very limiting.  Because the people who are most likely to feel guilty are also the ones who are the most likely to switch over to the higher-revenue, higher-margin organics.


Making people feel negative emotions about their current actions changes their buying criteria!

This is one of the most powerful selling tools you can use.

If you want people to choose to do business with you, the single-best way to do it is to establish buying criteria in your favor.

And the best way to do that is to invalidate other options.  Show how those options are inferior, or insufficient in light of their big-picture goals.

You want to eat food that’s nutritious and supports good health?  Sure, eating more fruits and vegetables is good.  But what if those fruits and vegetables are covered and filled with a toxic poison that will build up in your body and give you cancer?  Why not eat the same fruits and vegetables, but free of the poison?

Especially when you’re able to identify the fruits and veggies (such as strawberries and apples) that have the highest concentration of pesticides.  So you don’t have to automatically buy all-organic to be making much healthier food choices.  Just select produce that gives you an inordinately high exposure to the nasty chemicals.

Well, after reading that, I’m sure you’re reconsidering what food you’re buying organic.

I explained how that’s an incredibly powerful selling narrative to Kelly, the manager at the grocery store.  But he was still stuck in the corporate narrative of  “thou shalt not offend a single customer.”

So they will probably never post that “negative” list.  (Even if it could, quite literally, save a customer’s life.)

Here’s the thing: I had an epiphany this morning that customers actually LOVE the negative — and there’s a blatant demonstration of this fact every day…

Which means it’s finally time for me to pay off the title of this essay, and share, “Undeniable proof you should crank up the pain and agony in your marketing…”

The news.  We pay to read it.  Or at the very least, we consume it voluntarily, and on a very regular basis.

There’s an axiom in news, that you probably know even if you’ve never worked a day in a newsroom…

“If it bleeds, it leads.”

People have a natural fascination with the macabre.  The grim.  The gruesome.  The hideous.  The horrible.  The terrible and lurid.

I’ve literally gotten in a car accident (many years ago) because I was too busy rubbernecking at another car accident to see the car slamming its breaks in front of me.  You may not have ever gotten in an accident for that reason, but you’ve surely caught yourself staring at an accident as you drove by.

Let’s mosey on over to Google News, to see a demonstration of another kind of rubbernecking.

I like Google News because it’s a relatively unbiased curation of today’s news.  They put headlines from (fairly) reputable news sources in front of millions of users, and track clicks and story engagement to determine what people feel to be the most relevant, interesting, or relevant stories of the day.  It tells you what people are interested in today.

As of this writing, here’s what’s topping Google News.  With a (parenthetical comment) about the emotional tone and subtext of the headline.

— Tribunal overwhelmingly rejects Beijing’s South China Sea claims (controversy, antagonism, war)

— Obama to honor 5 Dallas officers shot by a man out for revenge (revenge, divisiveness, honor, reconciliation)

— At least 20 killed in Italy train collision (morbidity, tragedy, blunder)

— Two bailiffs killed, deputy sheriff injured in Michigan courthouse shooting (morbidity, tragedy, violence)

— Attorney general faces questions on Bill Clinton meeting, email probe (controversy, lies, favoritism, collusion)

Should I go on?  There’s not a single flowery human interest story in the whole thing.  There’s only one that feels like it has a decidedly positive, reconciliatory bent.  But even that is the continuation of a revenge and death narrative that’s been in the news recently.

This is clear evidence that — given the choice — people choose the negative!

You may not like this.  You may prefer the positive, the beneficial, the gentle.  Frankly, I do, too!

But if you’re a marketer you can’t ignore the negative emotions.  You can’t.  You simply can’t.

People respond much more earnestly to get away from pain than to pursue pleasure.  What this translates to, in terms of where we focus our interest and attention, is a desire to read every negative news story of the day.

We’re trying to figure out where the problem is.  How big it is.  And how it’s going to impact our lives.

And if we determine if this is going to be a problem for us, we start looking for solutions.

This is why negative advertising and problem-based narratives that bring the prospect to the solution in the offer are so perennially effective.

And for proof of the attention-grabbing appeal, you simply need to pick up your local newspaper, turn on your preferred 24/7 news network, or click over to your favorite news site.

As much as this may bode poorly for the future of humanity, it may be a boon for your business to go there in search of inspiration.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr