Archive for October, 2017

When Does Negative Copy Drive Positive Outcomes?

Friday, October 20th, 2017

All through my career in sales and marketing in the corporate world, I’ve been exhorted to write in positive style. The strong guidance applied to ads, email marketing, datasheets, brochures, case studies and other forms of marketing collateral (hereinafter referred to as “copy”).

In my early days in software marketing, I used to work for a company that developed a warehouse management software (“WMS”). By curbing theft from warehouses, WMS helped retailers and other industries prevent pilferage losses. Accordingly, the most natural way to position it was as a tool to “cut losses”. However my boss at the time told me to put across the value proposition positively. Since I was a marketing greenhorn at the time, I went ahead and pitched it as “grow profits with WMS”.

But I was never comfortable with the contrived positive spin.

Sure enough, over the following years, I’ve regularly come across negative copy in business communications. For example:


Peter Sondergaard, SVP & Global Head of Research at Gartner, does not say “your org should optimize and create new digital biz models to march ahead”.


In The future of grocery—in store and online, McKinsey Partner Louise Herring asserts “…there’s no reason why some of the technologies that can work in a financial-services world couldn’t also apply to many of the retailers that we have around the world.”

She does not put a positive spin by saying “there’s every reason why some of the technologies that can work in a financial-services world could also apply to many of the retailers we have around the world”.


In his interview with the Financial Times (subscription required), Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, declares “There is no walk of life that is not going to require computational understanding”.

He does not say “Every walk of life is going to require computational understanding.”


Have a look at the launch ad of Quikr’s Audience Platform:

India’s #1 classified ads platform does not claim that “your brand and audience will always be matched”.

It’s not just in business.

Take popular literature. The Acknowledgments section of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is full of negative lines.

Or politics:

Or coaching:

This sales management coach is actually telling his audience to reframe a positive statement into a negative warning:


When we’re taught to think positively, why’re so many famous and successful people using negative style in their written communications?

I think it’s because of the so-called Loss Aversion principle in consumer behavior theory.

In plain English, loss aversion means that individuals (as well as companies) will make double the efforts to retain what they have than to get something new. The terms “what they have” and “something” in the previous sentence refer not only to materialistic items (e.g. money, house, car) but also intangible things (e.g. status, self-esteem, brand image).

When applied to the context of warehouse theft, the loss aversion principle suggests that a company will be motivated more strongly to avoid losses caused by pilferage than to grow profits resulting from reduced pilferage. Hence “cut losses” is a more powerful message in theory. This was borne out in practice when we created a Marketable Item based on the “cut losses” angle for one of our customers many years later. The lead generation campaign based on this negative theme received a better response than the earlier one using the positive “grow profits” variant.


While marketers need to be careful about the use of negative copy, a campaign based on contrived positive language can backfire badly.

I came across a great example of this when a company sugarcoated its message when the situation called for negative copy and suffered a serious blow to its reputation as a result. This was a leading Mobile Network Operator from whom I’ve bought several mobile phone connections over the past 10+ years. All connections were in my personal name.

Consequent to the Goods & Services Tax regime that came into effect from 1 July 2017, my CA firm pointed out that I could claim tax credit on my mobile phone bills if the connections were in my company’s name. I visited the MNO’s store to request a transfer of some of my connections to my company’s name and submitted the required KYC documents. One day later, the new SIM card in my company’s name got activated. So far so good.

A couple of days later, I got the following SMS from the MNO:

Since my new connection was already active, I didn’t believe anything was pending from my side. Besides, this MNO has a track record of sending messages that even its own staff don’t understand.

Therefore, I ignored this Call To Action.

Two days later, I couldn’t make any calls. Whenever I tapped the green-colored call button on my smartphone, I got an automated message informing me that my outgoing calls were blocked due to failure of my KYC verification.

I was very upset – this was the first time my connection was blocked in 15+ years of my using a mobile phone. If someone had conducted a survey at that point, I’d have rated this MNO’s CX as the worst in the world (across all industries!).

Anyway, what was done was done. I went back to the store, jumped through several hoops and got this problem sorted out. But I vowed to myself that I’d never buy any Value Added Service from this company (For some reason apparently mandated by the telecom regulator, every VAS purchase entails fresh KYC).

Had the MNO had used a more direct Call To Action – e.g. “Your verification has failed. Please visit our store for re-verification” – I wouldn’t have suffered loss of connection or written off this brand. While the alternative message sounds negative, it’d have invoked immediate action instead of its sugarcoated message that lulled me into inaction and put me through a lot of trouble a couple of days later.

My takeaway from the overall experience was that the MNO had made the unpardonable mistake of stopping service for a paying customer. In the end, it didn’t matter that its CTA was worded positively.

Once marketers see the power of negative copy, they might be tempted to recast the messaging of all their offerings.

They shouldn’t. Negative copy needs to be used very selectively and handled with kid gloves when used.

In a follow-on post, I’ll share my thoughts on the right context for using negative copy and outline a few best practices for running campaigns based on them. Watch this space!

Aspirational Selling Is Not Overselling

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Every now and then I come across a techie complaining that their sales is overselling, thus making their job of creating a satisfied customer harder.

For example, take this OP on Quora, who asks:

Is it common to oversell in B2B? My boss has a tendency to oversell our company services, but the tech team can’t keep up. I’m new to the B2B setting.

These guys should realize that there’s a big difference between overselling and aspirational selling.

Overselling is selling something and not delivering it.

Aspirational selling is selling to aspirational goals of the customer with every intention and proven track record of achieving those goals.

Aspirational selling is a fairly common practice in the software industry.

Take office automation software, for example.

It’s widely believed that customers use only 30–40% of features in Word, Excel, etc. Despite that, Microsoft has been releasing newer versions of Office with more functionality for nearly three decades. That’s because, during the entire lifetime of MS Office, one characteristic of consumer behavior hasn’t changed: Users’ hunger for more features whether they use them or not. Microsoft didn’t stop developing future versions of Office on the basis of the reality that customers were not using 70% of the previous versions’ functionality. Instead, it released a new version almost every two years during the 30 year lifetime of MS Office. And the rest is history. (For a deep dive into this topic, see my blog posts SaaS Will Change The Outcome Of The Bloatware Versus Light Apps Debate and Introducing “Multiply UI” To Solve The Software Industry’s 95% Problem).

Now, when it comes to enterprise applications, aspirational selling is even more common.

Take the following ad from ERP leader SAP for example.

The copy drives prospective customers to aspire to become a world-class company by buying SAP.

There’s a very strong reason why aspirational selling is the standard selling style in ERP, CRM, Configure-Price-Quote, Learning Management Systems, and many other enterprise software products. Companies already use a “system” to carry out the business processes automated by these products. The basic nature of many of these business processes hasn’t changed radically. Therefore, a prospect upgrades to a new enterprise software product not to do something drastically new but because they aspire to improve the way of doing existing things.

Let’s taking invoicing as an example. Whether a company sells goods or services, uses offline, online or omnichannel, deploys ATL or BTL tactics to drive sales, it always raises an invoice against a sale. That basic principle of accounting has remained constant during the entire history of business.

To generate an invoice, a company can use a range of “systems” like pen and paper, calculator, Excel, point invoicing software or an ERP. Why would it want to upgrade to an ERP? Not to generate some “gold coated” invoice, I’m sure, but more likely to achieve one or more of the following goals:

  1. Cut operating costs by harmonizing the invoice process / template across all business units, offices and factories
  2. Compute revenues at SBU and enterprise levels in realtime
  3. Support manifold increase in invoicing volumes without a proportionate increase in manpower
  4. Gain visibility into inventory across all stocking points
  5. Prevent stock-outs and resultant loss of revenues by triggering stock transfers from one warehouse / store to another

These are aspirational goals because they seek to raise the company to the next level of revenues, profits and customer experience. It’s obvious that sales needs to sell an enterprise software as a way of fulfilling these aspirations.

Now, all these techie versus sales conflicts and charges of overselling start when the aspiration rubber hits the reality road.

Once the vendor receives the order and its tech team kicks off the implementation of the product, many unforseen challenges surface at the customer company e.g. organizational politics, disjointed data structure across operating units, differing regulations across operating locations, lack of top management bandwidth, and so on.

Before sales bags the deal, these challenges are either not forseen or appear minor to everyone. So there’s no way a salesperson can win the deal by bringing them up.

Which is why aspirational selling is practice du jour in software.

And it’s not only me.

AMR Research, the onetime leading supply chain research firm, once quipped:

“2nd Law of Software Marketing: Don’t let the product come in the way of the story.”

(Before you ask, the research firm that was subsequently acquired by Gartner didn’t propound a 1st Law of Software Marketing!)

The aforementioned challenges prevent invoice harmonization i.e rollout of a single, common invoicing process / invoice template across the whole company.

The customer has two options at this point:

(A) Keep the implementation on hold until these issues are resolved


(B) Recalibrate the scope of invoice harmonization to a subset of the operating units, and move forward with the implementation according to the original schedule.

Under Option A, the go-live deadline will be missed but all the features will be implemented upon go-live. There’s no aspirational selling or overselling.

Under Option B, the deadline will be met but certain features will be pushed out to the second phase. But there’s still no overselling, because, had the customer selected Option A, the tech team could’ve very well implemented invoice harmonization as projected by sales.

A savvy tech team helps the customer take the right decision and optimizes the implementation to fit the given circumstances.

That’s the key to creating a satisfied customer. Not whining about overselling.

I’m The Proud Author Of A Book!

Friday, October 6th, 2017

I’m happy to announce that I’ve published a book!

Entitled FROM DISLOYALTY TO OMNICHANNEL CUSTOMER ENGAGEMENT, my book is available in Kindle and EPUB formats.

In this eBook, I trace the arc of loyalty programs run by brands during the last 5-7 years and predict the trajectory of their customer engagement management strategies over the remaining 3-4 years of the current decade. Contrary to popular opinion, loyalty is still a thing and many brands are making sizeable investments to go beyond discounts and promotions to build cult loyalty à la 3M, Amazon et al.

Brands covered in this book include 3M, Amazon, Allerghan, DMART, Go Daddy, ICICI Bank, IHG, Nescafe, Ola, PayTM, SBI, Shopper’s Stop, Snickers, Tic Tac and Uber.

You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

I’m currently navigating the challenges of publishing the EPUB version, one of them being the fact that the world’s leading EPUB platform NOOK restricts self-publishing to U.S residents. I’m hoping to sort this out in the coming days. I’ll update this post when the EPUB goes live on NOOK (or another EPUB platform).

Having spent a good part of my professional career in marketing, I’m no stranger to developing content but this is my first go at writing a book.