Some interesting marketing lessons about being bad (or preferably good)

When I was a kid in London, bad meant good. If your trainers were bad, it meant they were good. If a film was bad, it meant it was good. If your haircut was bad, well, actually that meant your haircut was bad, for some strange reason. Michael Jackson got involved with his best-selling album Bad, and shoe brand Hush Puppies even got stuck in. It was possibly all very confusing.


Thankfully the slang moved on (although please don’t even think of saying ‘on fleek‘ to me), but still, to this day, if someone tells you your work isn’t too bad, it probably means it’s bloody good. Lots of good girls fall for lots of bad boys (and vice versa). And, in our world of marketing, a little bit of badness remains a very good thing, since we need to break the rules a little bit in order to create innovative campaigns and services. It’s the non-conformists that positively disrupt things, not the conformists.

So, while there’s room for a little bit of bad in marketing, a couple of speeches at this year’s Nudgestock (Ogilvy’s annual conference on behavioural economics) provided a few fresh and quite revealing insights on the topic of bad versus good in marketing, which I hope you might find interesting…

[Disclosure: To my regret, I wasn’t at Nudgestock – an error I aim to rectify in future years – but, thanks to the miracles of social media, YouTube and the blogosphere, I was able to piece together the following helpful snippets].

People really notice and remember bad stuff

Wing Commander (& psychology specialist) Keith Dear presented evidence and examples which demonstrated that “bad is stronger than good”. To explain that, he presented three findings from research and social experiments:

  1. People who were shown photos of bad and good events spent longer viewing the bad ones;
  2. When people learn bad stuff about someone else, it’s stickier than good stuff; and
  3. People pay closer attention to the bad stuff, reflect on it more, remember it longer, and weight it more heavily in assessing the person overall.

(photo ‘borrowed’ from Twitter)

If you look around, there is much supporting evidence for Wing Commander Dear’s research. Here are just a few examples…

  • The negativity effect and loss aversion are two well-known and related psychological phenomena that have a significant effect on decision making. Simply (words from Wikipedia), something negative will generally have more of an impact on a person’s behaviour and cognition than something equally positive. And when presented with a situation in which a person stands to either lose something or gain something, potential costs are more heavily considered than potential gains.
  • A landmark social experiment by Yale psychology professor Howard Leventhal educated students about the importance of getting a tetanus inoculation. The twist was that he showed different versions of the educational information to different groups – a toned-down ‘low fear’ version and a more graphic ‘high fear’ version. Unsurprisingly, students that had seen the ‘high fear’ version were more convinced of the need to get inoculated. Interestingly, while the motivation to get a jab was enhanced by the bad stuff, the students didn’t actually do it until they were given clear instructions on how, when and where to get the jabs. Fear worked, but it wasn’t enough on its own. It needed to be accompanied by a clear next step – a ‘call to action’ in marketing speak. (You can read more about this online and in Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book ‘The Tipping Point’).
  • Here’s another interesting article on the topic, courtesy of the New York Times >

Perhaps three obvious lessons or things for B2B brands and marketers are:

  1. people will not forget poor quality and experience. Bad experiences will possibly (maybe even probably) outweigh good ones. As marketers, we clearly need to focus on exemplary product quality and service experience as a brand imperative. After all, while client retention is rarely portrayed as the sexy part of our B2B marketing roles, it is almost always more pivotal to commercial stability in B2B than client acquisition;
  2. related to that, truly understanding sentiment towards our respective B2B brands and keeping a very close eye on customer satisfaction must be core KPIs for all B2B marketers; and
  3. in our content, campaigns and other marketing communications, don’t be too quick to dismiss focusing on the bad things that can happen to customers – and how your brand, product or service can solve or prevent those bad things. Of course it’s important to be positive and constructive as a B2B brand, to present solutions, and not be a scare-monger – BUT we can command quicker and more lasting attention by raising awareness of the bad things that might happen to our customers if they don’t take proactive and preventative action on a particular issue. (The vital point here is that this tactic only works if the solution you are presenting is rooted entirely in the customer’s self-interest. Saying that, you’re presenting something they actually need).

Morality and Brands

In a separate speech at Nudgestock, Dr Oliver Scott Curry – Senior Researcher, Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, Oxford University – presented his research into the topic of morality. By definition, morality means the distinction between good and bad behaviour, and Oliver’s research identified 10 common moral rules found all over the world:

  1. Help your family
  2. Help your group
  3. Return favours
  4. Be brave
  5. Respect your superiors
  6. Be fair
  7. Respect other peoples’ property
  8. Work hard
  9. Tell the truth
  10. Be generous

I understand that the implication in a B2B marketing context is that company values – our brand values – need to reflect some (if not all) of these common human traits if we are to perceived as moral, and therefore trustworthy.

Taking that one step further for international brands, what was particularly interesting and helpful in Dr Curry’s research is that these morals apply universally across cultures, meaning they apply in all regions and countries in which our brands operate. I know from first-hand experience that bringing your B2B product or service to new overseas territories can be fraught with cultural questions and uncertainty, and so, while they don’t present a full list of local cultural nuances (eg don’t stick your chopsticks upright in your food in China), they’re a pretty helpful starting point.

Here’s a video of Dr Curry’s speech…

In Summary?

I guess there were two helpful takeaways from this. Firstly, we all already knew that B2B brands and the service experience we deliver should be good – it’s a bit of a ‘no Shit Sherlock‘ statement – but I found this behavioural research to be a helpful reminder that ‘bad stuff sticks’.

And, secondly, Nudgestock sounds sick (meaning totally awesome).

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