Marketers should use positive messaging to help consumers deal with the cost-of-living crisis

Global and Strategic Marketing Research Centre

Dr Aulona Ulqinaku is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Leeds University Business School. Her research interests cover the effect of psychological threats (such as low self-esteem, social exclusion, fear of death, nihilism, etc.) on individuals and their consumption preferences and choices.

Dr Aulona Ulqinaku - Leeds University Business School

As the cost of essentials like food, energy, and fuel continues to skyrocket, many individuals are feeling the pressure of a growing cost-of-living crisis. This financial strain demands a thoughtful approach from marketers. 

Positive versus negative messaging 

Brands will often use positive messaging in adverts to try and encourage consumers to buy their products or service. For example, popular campaigns that used positive messages include Coca-Cola evoking happiness, McDonald’s’ “I’m loving’ it”, and the California Milk Processor Board promoting milk with those memorable milk moustaches. 

Brands have found that negative messaging can also be effective, however. For instance, Wisk laundry detergent warned about embarrassing collar stains, and Listerine mouthwash highlighted the social problem of halitosis.  

Advertisers often employ negative emotional advertising in social marketing campaigns to warn against alcohol and drug abuse, the use of child labour in manufacturing, or to encourage healthy eating habits to prevent dangerous diseases such as cancer or heart failure. 

Research has shown that using negative messages in advertising can have a big impact on how people process information, how they feel, and even how they behave, such as how they perceive political candidates. Negative information tends to carry more weight than positive information in our minds. 

However, negative adverts are often seen as lacking creativity. For example, studies have found that voters find negative messaging in political campaigns to be unfair, deceptive and uninformative. 

Financial struggles 

Our research examined how individuals with financial difficulties responded to different types of advertising messages. The findings shed light on the significance of tailoring communications to better serve those struggling financially. 

We studied how people's financial situation affects their response to ads with positive messages (gaining something) versus negative messages (avoiding something). Through conducting six studies, including field and online experiments, we found that people with financial problems had a better reaction to adverts with a positive message.  

People have two underlying motivational systems - seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. An increase in positive stimuli makes people seek pleasure and an increase in negative stimuli leads people to avoidance. 

Therefore, when individuals with financial difficulties are exposed to positive ads that focus on gaining something (like a discount or a benefit), their automatic response is to be more positive towards those ads. Whereas negative ads that focus on avoiding a loss don't resonate as strongly with them. 

Information overload 

We also studied how much information in the ad the participants had to process affected their response.

Individuals experiencing financial constraints tend to have limited mental energy, which influences their decision-making process. When mental energy is low, people tend to rely on quick and simple judgments, favouring positive messages that highlight potential gains and benefits. In contrast, negative messages that emphasise potential losses are less effective in capturing their attention and influencing behaviour. 

Recommendations for financial services marketers 

The implications of these findings are particularly relevant for practitioners in the financial services industry, who are trying to create effective marketing strategies for their target audience to help with financial difficulties.  

To incentivise consumers to save more or allocate a greater share of their income to their future pension, a more effective strategy would be to position the communications in a positive way, using words such as "approach", "allow" and “increase", instead of words like “avoid", “prevent” and "reduce".  

For example, rather than using negative messaging such as "Avoid spending today if you don’t want to be in a worse financial state tomorrow", marketers should employ positive messaging like "Save more today to have better financial security tomorrow." 

These communication strategies can be used to help avoid overspending and prevent individual bankruptcies. For example, many financial consultants begin by showing their clients ways to reduce or avoid overspending. However, our results suggest that framing advice as ways to increase or allow spending in the future might be more persuasive. 

The current cost-of-living crisis demands a compassionate and well-tailored response from all stakeholders involved. Marketers must adapt their communications ethically and responsibly to benefit consumers. By leveraging the power of positive messaging, financial professionals can play a pivotal role in helping consumers cope with the challenges they face. 

Contact us

If you would like to get in touch regarding any of these blog entries, or are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact:

Phone: +44 (0)113 343 8754

Click here to view our privacy statement. You can repost this blog article, following the terms listed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.