When looking at the most enduring businesses of the last century, a consistent theme emerges: the power of the positive. While all brands need to pivot their message from time to time to keep the pace in an ever-changing market, it’s hard to think of a company that has stayed at the top of its game for decades by preaching a consistently negative message.
Yet time and time again we see politicians come to power on the back of a negative platform, only to discover that this talent for nay-saying ends up becoming a rod for their own backs.
If you come into being selling a message of despair, the expectation is that you will also solve these woes once you come into office. The voting public loses confidence very quickly if the problems and fear-mongering continue without an actionable solution. Positivity is a far more enduring approach.
This is a lesson that businesses of all sizes should take on board, because it applies well beyond the realm of the political.
Can naysayers like Donald Trump survive in power and what does this mean for businesses?
Donald Trump may not have won the popular vote, but the 45th President of the United States still managed to come to power, and did so largely on the back of a picture of doom and gloom.
Take his most famous election slogan: Make America great again. It sounds positive, but the message is that America was great, rather than is.
Then there was the campaign he ran – his predecessor’s policies were “dumb”, his opponent was “grossly incompetent”, and he even developed a new catch-phrase – “wrong!”
What has been the result? While never wildly popular – FiveThirtyEight have his highest approval rating since his inauguration at just 47.8% – Trump’s approval rating dropped below 40 in mid-May and has not risen above 39.8 since.
There are numerous factors behind his falling popularity – the constant turnover of staff in the West Wing is certainly a contributor – but a lack of good news to tell his electorate is a prominent issue, exacerbated by the way the bad news is delivered.
One of Trump’s best-known policies was to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but when in July it became apparent this would not go ahead, the President’s response was that he now planned to “let Obamacare fail”.
The reality was that while the Republicans said they would create a better means for Americans to access healthcare, they couldn’t find a workable solution, so their leader’s response was to allow the current means to simply fail.
In effect: things are bad, now let’s watch them get worse. Can the man honestly be surprised that his approval ratings are the worst of any President at this stage of their tenure in the last 70 years?
Now, I’m an ad-man, and don’t claim to be a political operative, but in my experience the best way to sell a message to the public is not to tell them how terrible things will be without you.
Rather, it is far more effective to focus on how much better things will be with what you’re peddling. This is a near-universal proposition that any brand – be it a political brand like Trump or a local chicken shop – would do well to keep in mind.
Coca-Cola: Always upbeat
When you think of the all-time great companies when it comes to advertising, few can top Coca-Cola.
The company, which started in Atlanta in 1886, has obviously had its highs and lows, but has survived and thrived through both World Wars, the Great Depression, and countless shifts in marketing strategy.
The drink began life as a health tonic. Obviously that couldn’t last, but that hasn’t stopped Coca Cola from continuing to identify their drink and brand as being synonymous with young, happy, healthy people.
The company has changed the recipe for Coca Cola on multiple occasions – removing the trace cocaine that was originally present, creating ‘New Coke’, reverting to ‘Coke Classic’ (albeit using high-fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar) and more recently, creating new lines such as Coke Zero and Coke Life.
The mainstay throughout, however, has been the positive message: ‘Life is better with Coke’, not ‘life is unbearable without Coke’. Just a few of Coca Cola’s slogans over the years include: ‘Open happiness’, ‘Taste the feeling’, ‘Enjoy thirst’, ‘Pure as sunlight’, ‘The best friend thirst ever had’, ‘Where there’s Coke there’s hospitality’, ‘Things go better with Coke’, and of course ‘Always Coca Cola’.
As a result, while competitors such as Pepsi, the emergence of the energy drink market, and the general backlash against sugar have all caused speed-bumps along the way, Coke continues to be recognised as one of the most valuable brands on the planet – being ranked third most valuable by Statistica in 2016.
If you take a look at the top ten on that list – Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Toyota, IBM, Samsung, Amazon, Mercedes-Benz, and General Electric – none has risen to corporate dominance with a negative message.
These companies have all spent their marketing budgets on pushing themselves as businesses that make people’s lives better, or at least easier. The positive brand image always shines through, even when these companies face headwinds.
What’s more, while Google and Amazon are relatively new, the other eight names on that list are companies that have been around for more than 40 years. That’s at least five times the length of time any US President can hope to stay in office.
There are lessons to be learnt from this. If companies such as IBM and General Electric, which have both been around for more than a century, are thriving on a positive message, maybe politicians could attract more proverbial flies with honey than vinegar?
What’s more, we’ve seen how this can work in an election.
Yes we can!
Is there a more positive message than the three words that catapulted Barack Obama to power? “Yes we can!” There’s nothing about it that can be construed as remotely negative.
The other word most associated with the 44th President was “Hope”. The man was a walking beacon of positivity.
This is not to say he was the perfect leader, nor that he had life in office better or easier than his successor, but it’s surely much easier to keep the electorate on your side after winning an election on a message of upbeat inclusiveness.
Comparative approval ratings certainly suggest as much, Obama coming off an early high of 68% and staying above 50% for most of his first year.
What’s more, this positivity resonated with Americans, Obama becoming the first President since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to secure 51% or more of the popular vote in two elections.
Ironically, the idea that positivity is a great way of making a sale had a role to play in much of Trump’s business success.
As he wrote in ‘The Art of the Deal’, “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do.
“That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion.”
Unfortunately, that book hit shelves in 1987, and it seems Trump has forgotten the power of positivity over the past 30 years. Of course, the fact he came into power peddling an outright negative message has made it near impossible for him to suddenly turn around as a man of positivity. Starting positive, and staying positive, appears to be far more effective, at least from a branding perspective.
Again, I’m no political scientist and I’m aware that there are far more issues at play than branding when it comes to winning elections, but brand awareness is powerful in any public sphere. And, as the world’s most successful companies have shown – often for over more than 100 years – an upbeat message speaks to people far more consistently than peddling doom.
About the author
Jason Dooris is the CEO and founder of Sydney-based creative media agency Atomic 212°. His previous contributions for Dynamic Business include “It’s like Vegemite” – Why the business world has a love-hate relationship with culture and Time to stop ignoring the evidence: a healthy workforce fosters a healthy bottom line.