As anyone who’s ever both started a box of cookies and finished it in the same sitting knows, there can be too much of a good thing (yes, even when it’s a box of all-butter Scottish shortbread). The same logic applies to positivity in brand messaging. How many times have you viewed a sunny scene with smiling faces and joyous vibes used to explain that Company X is always a total paradise where people skip everywhere they go as they save the environment and win at life in general?
For a brilliant jab at this kind of generic positive messaging, check out this satirical video from Dissolve:
Skyword CEO Tom Gerace has something very simple to say about this video in his Forward 2017 keynote speech: “What I can tell you about that video, other than the fact that it’s cliché and it shows pretty much every bad cliché that marketers use doing this positive, positive, positive, positive messaging about their brand, is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t connect with us because we don’t think that it’s real. As marketers if we want to connect with our customers we do need to live in the real world . . . so it starts off with being honest.”
In the world of positive psychology, it can be tempting to assume that the more positivity you can cram into your life, the happier and more successful you will be. While the field has greatly advanced the importance of improving our health and wellbeing proactively (instead of only trying to fix what’s broken), one of the biggest misperceptions it’s created in the public eye is that you should be positive and happy all the time. Well, you shouldn’t, especially if you’re trying to gain the trust of your clients and consumers.
In a study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers provide evidence to suggest that the midway point between two extremes is often what you ought to be aiming for with any behavior if you’re looking for success and happiness. Aristotle referred to this point in his discussion of cultivating virtues as the mean between deficiencies and excesses. In the domain of self-presentation, for instance, the deficiency is self-deprecation, the excess is boastfulness, and the mean is honesty.
These kinds of diminishing returns for positive traits and behaviors can be represented graphically by the inverted U, where more of a positive trait increases beneficial returns only up to a point, beyond which those returns start to decrease.
Image attribution: Adam M. Grant and Barry Schwartz
Force too much positive brand messaging at your audiences and they may start to lose interest and trust in your brand. Life isn’t perfect, and you shouldn’t be aiming for perfection either. People are much more responsive to stories and messages that seem real and authentic. We want to see people with flaws, like us. We want to see an acknowledgment of the conflicts and challenges that exist in the world we know. We want you to admit your mistakes and be honest about your weaknesses. We want subtlety, nuance, detail, and balance.
Science has also shown that our brains are more attracted to negative content. it’s called the negativity bias. Brain scans reveal a greater surge in electrical activity in the brain in response to negative stimuli than in response to positive stimuli. Researchers have even come up with a ratio of positivity to negativity that predicts the healthiest relationships between couples. That ratio is 5:1. The ideal balance seems to be five times more positivity than negativity. But the negativity is an important contrast.
There is nothing wrong with positivity in moderation, and when appropriate. As a company or brand, you’re allowed to celebrate milestones and be happy and optimistic about your goals, but you’re also allowed to be dissatisfied, scared, uncertain, and frustrated. As Skyword CEO Tom Gerace remarked, we’re living in challenging times where we’re seeing a lack of empathy in our relationships with one another. We’re also seeing a rise in mental health issues among younger generations and trouble with the psychological effects of social media. Let’s not ignore the world we’re living in but rather acknowledge that things aren’t perfect by showing empathy not just with positive emotions but negative ones too.
Just as the power of a happy ending in a well-told story is only powerful given the emotional ups and downs the reader took to get there, a brand’s positive messaging is only one dimension of the whole story audiences are seeking. The most immersive storytelling takes us on a rich narrative journey through a full spectrum of emotions that reflect our real lived experiences.
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Featured image attribution: Lesly B. Juarez