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Fear & Branding
February 7, 2022

Fear & Branding

I’ve been thinking lately about fear. As we enter year three of a pandemic, I suspect fear is something we’ve learned to live with. It lives in our house, like a weird little cat that we didn’t ask inside.

People can face a new level of anxiety when the worst-case scenario pans out, fails to improve and then becomes normal. The pandemic did rocket us into the future, but it’s not the one we envisioned. Instead of floating cars, we got tiny nasal medical tests.


The good thing about learning to live with fear is that it starts to make you look inward instead of distracting yourself with the outside world. That weird little cat looks hard at your own life and says, maybe you need to get obsessed with plants. Or make tiny oil paintings. Or move across the country.

These small sources of joy have been our main weapon against feeling helpless in trying times. Considering that helplessness is connected to anxiety and depression, combatting it with a sense of control or empowerment is key.

So how can we take this idea into account in our industry?

Fear & Branding Messaging

Fear is a common consideration for brands that want to understand consumers and build journeys around their emotions and needs. “FUD,” otherwise known as “fear, uncertainty and doubt” is an acronym that brands use to motivate changes in behavior and lead people to use their products and services.

What is the cost of inaction? Will your dog get fleas? Are you exposing your child to harmful chemicals?

What doubt can we sow? Does your toothpaste contain parabens? Is your doorbell able to detect thieves? Is there something in your anti-stick pan seeping into your eggs?

We are inundated with these messages every day by brands, articles and news segments, although we might not even notice them anymore. But we do internalize these patterns of thought, and they can become amplified into a collective paranoia.

Replacing Fear

It can be tempting to motivate ourselves and others with fear, especially when this tactic is widely practiced in advertising (and in media at large).

But the problem with fear is that it can be paralyzing. Instead of inspiring people to act, it can stop them in their tracks.

When I was brought in to work on shelter and rescue pet content for a pet food brand, the main insight was that rescue pets are commonly depicted as damaged, traumatized and “secondhand.” “If you don’t help this animal, it will receive a terrible fate.”

But that type of depiction backfires. Instead of inspiring a family to adopt a rescue dog into their home, it might make them donate $5 and go to a breeder.

What actually motivates people to adopt rescue pets is showing how wonderful they are.

If you create a message saying, this amazing pet is in need of an amazing human for an amazing friendship, it works.

It is great to understand people’s fears and needs as a way to empathize with them. A person looking for a pet is full of fear. They’re afraid of being lonely—of unlocking the door and finding silence instead of a wild dog running in circles with glee.

Fear & Storytelling

When it comes to the actual story you’re telling, think of the empowerment that counters these fears.

Structuralism helps by turning fear into a component of a larger formula. What is fear a barrier to? There’s usually a goal or desire on the other side. A classic story structure is just hero / obstacle / desire. A hero overcomes an obstacle to get what they want.

Returning to our shelter pets, both sides of the story may start with fear. A woman needs a companion after her husband dies. A cat has sat at the shelter for six months without interest. When they come together, they are both empowered and enriched.

It’s ok to address the fear, as long as we don’t forget about the larger story we’re telling. Fear isn’t what motivates—hope does. When you tell a story of hope or redemption, it disarms that feeling of paralysis. But more importantly, it leads to a rhetoric of empowerment.

In Conclusion

More people than ever adopted animals during the pandemic. We’ve been replacing the metaphorical cat of our fears with real animal friends at a rapid rate.

As a result, our shelter and rescue friends have come quite far from the days when Sarah McLachlan sang In the Arms Arms of an Angel over B-roll of sad cats. What placed so many animals in homes wasn’t fear or pity, but a longing for connection and hope. And that’s where the better story exists.


Artwork by Sean Cooley

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