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Sunshine is dangerous.
By Bryan Pearson
Back in high school, when my leading preoccupations included soccer games and biology classes, and long before I turned my sights to a lifetime in loyalty and customer intimacy, I spent my days with my face turned toward the sun.
I was not alone. Throughout the summers of the 1970s and 1980s, millions of people from around the globe ventured out to the beach, the poolside, the park, or the rooftop in pursuit of a deep, dark tan. All sorts of methods were tested to intensify our bronzing: Foil-lined reflectors, baby oil, and even butter were pulled from closets and refrigerators. And for those who worked all day, sunlamps were plugged into the bedroom. Coppertone ran full-color magazine advertisements featuring swimsuit models the approximate color of roast turkeys, alongside the message: YOU OWN THE SUN WITH COPPERTONE.
It was universally understood: Beautiful people were tan.
The marketing message behind all of these products is the same: If you don't buy it, something bad will happen. You'll get fat. You'll go bald. You won't perform. No one will love you. Your family will be left homeless and penniless. You'll be an outcast.
These days, the start of summer weather—May—is designated as Skin Cancer Awareness Month. More than 68,000 new cases of lethal melanoma were diagnosed in the United States in 2010, with 8,700 deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute. The prognosis is that one in five Americans will eventually develop some form of skin cancer.
The disease does not recognize socioeconomic, cultural, or social barriers, let alone beauty. Among public figures who have fought skin cancer are Sen. John McCain, who was treated for a recurrence of melanoma in 2000. The late Elizabeth Taylor in 2003 was treated for basal cell carcinoma. Talk- and game-show host Regis Philbin was diagnosed with skin cancer twice, once after having a small growth excised by a doctor during the airing of his popular morning show. And actress Melanie Griffith underwent surgery to have early-stage skin cancer removed in 2009.
Not surprisingly, the makers of skin-care products were soon recruiting celebrities to endorse skin-cancer awareness and pledge sun celibacy. By 2008, Desperate Housewives actress Marcia Cross was in her second year of a campaign with the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery and the skin care brand Olay, made by Procter & Gamble. Actresses Kristen Bell and Anna Faris campaigned with Jergens, a P&G competitor, to benefit the Skin Cancer Foundation. And in 2011, celebrities including Brandy, Tatyana Ali, and Danielle Fishel posed naked—though not fully exposed—in public-service announcements about the dangers of going outdoors without sunscreen.
The thing is, many of the sun-protective products populating the aisles by this time were not actual sunscreens. Rather, makers of everything from facial moisturizers to lip balm to cosmetics were including sunscreen in their brands as a product enhancement that pledged not only to fight cancer but to stop aging. Based on the amount of sunscreen protection out there, you’d think the sun’s rays were deadly on contact. And if they didn’t kill you, they’d put ten years on you.
But it was a boom business. Noncosmetic sunscreen product sales rose to almost $800 million annually by 2009,despite a recession that kept many people from summer travel. That was up from about $500 million in 2006, according to The New York Times.
Long gone are those eight-hour days at the poolside when tan lines were seductive and sun-kissed skin was a sign of healthy living. Nowadays, tanned skin gives off a precancerous glow.
Such awareness has definitely benefited the populace, since it has likely prevented many cases of cancer, but it also elevated sun protection from a health aid to a beauty aid. The fear of skin damage is so widespread, and access to prevention so seemingly easy, that there is little argument against spending slightly more for the protection, however limited.
The swell of product innovations actually caused the Food and Drug Administration in 2011 to announce new regulations for sunscreen labeling, to take effect in 2012. Among them, it is prohibiting any company from calling sunscreen “sunblock” or from labeling it as waterproof, since that is basically impossible.
The sunscreen industry was founded on a real fear. But its multiproduct expansion, to everything from facial wash to shampoos, is marketed on the same trepidations, because whether it is real or exaggerated, fear sells. It always has. Fear is what moves insurance policies, weight-loss systems, and Rogaine. It is why women will spend more for an antiwrinkle cream if it has microbeads, and why Viagra sales are almost $2 billion globally. Fear convinces people to invest in GPS systems for their cars and cell phones for their teenagers.
The challenge is in packaging the message of fear while still leaving the customer with a positive connection toward your brand.
The marketing message behind all of these products is the same: If you don’t buy it, something bad will happen. You’ll get fat. You’ll go bald. You won’t perform. No one will love you. Your family will be left homeless and penniless. You’ll be an outcast.
Entire industries thrive on fear. Sales of antibacterial products in the United States, including hand wipes and gels such as Purell, exceeded $1 billion in 2010, thanks largely to concerns about SARS and the H1N1 virus. Australian pillow maker Tontine in 2011 introduced “freshness date stamps” to encourage people to replace their synthetic pillows every two years to prevent dust mites, sweat stains, and other frightful things. Sales of the newly stamped pillows in the first week of its fresh-pillow campaign rose 345 percent. And the bedbug infestation that struck in 2007 resulted in a multifold growth in bedbug extermination sales, which advanced to $319 million in 2010 from $98 million in 2006, according to the National Pest Management Association. Some exterminators launched entire bedbug divisions, going so far as to purchase and train bedbug-sniffing dogs.
Fear has proven equally effective in getting people to stop certain habits, such as smoking, and to not stop doing certain things, such as wearing seat belts. How often have you been warned that if you no longer visit a specific store, you’ll miss its supersales and great offers?
Our own marketing results validate what most marketers already know: Fear not only sells—it sells differently based on the consumer segment and life stage. For example, one of our surveys reveals that younger consumers are more likely to adhere to their drug prescription regimes if they are warned that missing it could lead to illness, which in turn would lead to missed work and possibly becoming a burden to one’s family. People older than 55, however, are more motivated by price, which may speak to the fear of having to choose between medication and food.
The challenge is in packaging the message of fear while still leaving the customer with a positive connection toward your brand. I’d call that the advanced class of brand management, and I warn you: It could be a tall task when the goal is long-term customer intimacy. But there is a healthy way around it. I propose we look at fear in the inverse—which is to say that we should market on the message of hope.
The Conference Board
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