Is negative brand messaging a mistake?

By Tom Dougherty

A negative brand message? Remember the brand name.


Negative ideas are more memorable. It’s that simple.

negative brand messagingA few years ago, Stealing Share launched a medical biologic brand. Biomimetic Therapeutics created a compound rhPDGF that enhanced the body’s ability to heal. The brand had clinical studies vouching for the efficacy of the product. All they needed was FDA approval and a memorable brand message.

They received approval from the FDA for use in ankle fusions. Lowe extremity orthopedic surgeons would permanently fuse a patient’s ankle for stability. After the procedure, they injected rhPDGF into the fused area, and the body reacted more quickly. The body built additional bone at the point of fusion.

Our job was to build awareness and preference. We needed foot and ankle surgeons to remember the brand name. As in everything Stealing Share does— we needed to create preference.

Negative brand messaging

Negative brand messagingNo one can prefer a brand of products in any category if you don’t remember the brand name. We needed surgeons to remember the brand name and use the recombinant human PDGF BB homodimer (rhPDGF-BB).

It was a brand launch. No one was familiar with rhPDGF. And compounding the challenge was a long and difficult to pronounce the brand name “Biomimetic.”

Remembering the brand name is hard enough. We needed to find a message that changed minds. Something that disrupted a stagnant category of orthopedic practice. Should we follow the traditional path and tout the product benefits, or should we adopt a slightly negative brand message?

The research helped us decide

Negative brand messagingWe discovered some surprising things when researching lower extremity surgeons. They were a bit bored by routine procedures. Every surgeon we studied told us they love more complicated cases because the easy ones had become rote.

They admitted that habit was important. After all, the more you do a single task, the more proficient you become. But the lower extremity surgeons wanted challenges. They needed to push themselves.

Ordinarily, brands stick to positive messaging. I’m not talking about presenting an argument of comparison to competitors. I am speaking about the brand promise.

A brand promise must be reflective of the target audience’s beliefs to be persuasive. And we believe that is true even if the underlying sentiment is a negative emotion. Like “I am bored.”

A case study in negative brand messaging

Negative brand messagingI can’t take credit for all of this. Much credit goes to the client. In this case, the owner and his top lieutenant were fearless. They wanted to win and were willing, to tell the truth, no matter the tone.

So we created a new identity. We dropped “Therapeutics from the name and tied the brand tightly to negative brand messaging.

Many, I would go so far as to say MOST companies are afraid of negative brand messaging. They worry about political correctness rather than persuasive language. These folks were not.

Reject Ordinary

Negative brand messaging




You can look at a case study here if you like. But this is not about all the terrific brand and marketing materials we created for them. This is about the science of negative brand messaging.

It turns out that science backs up our thinking. It is easier to remember a negative thought or experience than it is a positive equivalent.

Negative brand messaging

What follows is from WebMD  “There may be a good reason why most people remember exactly what they were doing when tragedies happen, like the JFK assassination or Sept. 11th, but have a hard time remembering birthdays and anniversaries. It turns out that remembering the bad times just comes more naturally.

A new study suggests that we recall bad memories more quickly and in greater detail than good ones for perhaps evolutionary reasons. (you can read the article here).

Negative brand messagingThe learning here is not to be frightened or scared of negative brand messaging. It is more memorable and sticky (to use a marketing term).

It turns out that we empathize with tragedy easier than we do with celebrations.

There is an adage in sports reporting that it is more interesting to visit the loser’s locker room after a game than visiting the winner’s locker room. You learn more about deep emotions there.

And we seem to be able to identify with losers than winners.

This negative brand messaging explains a lot

Negative brand messaging

It explains the “Lost Cause” emotional tie many felt towards the Confederacy in the latter part of the last century. They could easily identify emotionally with those that lost. Somehow, they were more memorable.

The moral of this story is to look for and not avoid negative storylines. It may very well be that negative brand messaging is your ticket to success. It certainly was for Biomimetic and was one of the primary reasons Wright Medical bought the brand and subsequently hired us to do the same for them.



See more posts in the following related categories: Brand Anthropology brand strategy Branding Positioning persuasion rebranding