Curing Brand Phobias

by Ben Perreira

In their book, Creative Confidence, IDEO founders Tom and David Kelley recount how psychologist Albert Bandura cures snake phobias (ophiophobia). Bandura uses successive steps – from getting them into the same room as the snake to seeing someone holding it to actually holding it themselves – to dull the edges of fear. The technique, known as “guided mastery,” makes phobias vanish permanently when administered properly.

As I wrote in my previous post, I have a ton of things I’m afraid of. One of them was skydiving – until I went. Now I can’t wait to go again.

But this story really made me think about how we (used imperially to group people together who work on brand communications) try to “cure” brand phobias. More importantly, perhaps, is that the story sheds some light on how this process can go wrong.

Let’s look at BP. This company caused a ton of real damage in the Gulf in 2010. People have legitimate concerns (phobias) about BP the brand. Why would I buy something with the BP name attached to it when there are so many other options, they would ask themselves?

BP started to attack the phobias by apologizing and attempting to atone. The brand’s communications evoked empathy by showing BP employees that are real Gulf residents (just like you!). This year, they told us about their commitment to safety and innovation. They even claim to be sharing their learning with other energy companies.

The next step in curing BP-phobia may be for the brand to try to show the company is an innovator in alternative fuels. Chevron does this fairly well. BP could help allay fears by showing its commitment to moving beyond fossil fuels and into sustainable energy. They could also produce research that shows seafood from the Gulf is now fine to eat. If true, that would directly attack the fears of its most vociferous phobics.

What if we choose not to follow some kind of methodology to cure fears? What if we surprise a ophiophobic by handing him a snake? What if BP skipped the apology and kept talking about how great and cheap its gas is?

Good luck. I suspect it would make things worse.

Everybody wants to go to heaven, they say, but nobody wants to die. Being afraid of snakes isn’t that hard and holding a snake is pretty easy; how we get there is hard. We have to take the necessary steps to identify phobias around a brand to begin to see what a roadmap to fearlessness may look like. And a brand that doesn’t stoke phobias is pretty powerful.