Arnie WeissmannWhat single thread connects political consultant Karl Rove, "The Music Man's" Professor Harold Hill, the marketing executive behind New Coke and a participant in last week's travel agent-focused Twitter chat?

And what can other sellers of travel learn from their commonality?

Last week, Travel Weekly hosted a chat on Twitter during which we asked participating agents a number of questions. A few answers were surprising. For example, when we asked which niche they were focused on, most responded with a product, lifestyle, demographic or geographic specialization, but a few suggested a more visceral foundation to their business. They brought "passion" to the booking process. Or they specialized in "stolen kisses" for "blushing brides" or in reigniting relationships and fulfilling dreams. "Service" was mentioned more than once, as were "upgrades and extras."

But the tweet that caught my attention and got me to thinking came in response to a question about why a traveler should use an agent, to which one participant tweeted, "We got your back."

I realized that this simple response acknowledged the unease, or outright fear, that every experienced travel counselor knows is present in every travel transaction. Fear of overpaying. Fear of foreign languages and strange customs and food. Fear of illness. Fear of delays or cancellations or political unrest or strikes or bad weather or horrible service or missing a connection or losing a passport or airport security lines or under- or over-tipping or obnoxious fellow travelers or theft ... frankly, this list could go on to fill the rest of my allotted space.

What Karl Rove, Harold Hill, New Coke's promoter and the "we got your back" agent know is that fear has a greater motivating effect on human behavior than the mere perception of benefits.

Why do political consultants -- I mention Karl Rove only because he is so well known -- commission negative, fear-based ads despite consistent research revealing that voters dislike such advertising?

I once heard Sergio Zyman explain this phenomenon. He's the one responsible for introducing the ill-fated New Coke, but since then, he has more than redeemed himself with his writing on marketing topics and his consultation work. He also has a political consultancy and has guided several successful campaigns around the world.

Zyman said that, to put it bluntly, however distasteful fear-based campaigns might seem, they get results. The stakes are enormously high. While it might not make Pepsi happy to rank No. 2 behind Coke in market share, Pepsi can still run a profitable business from that position. For a political candidate, however, coming in second equals oblivion. It is not an option. Candidates will do whatever it takes to win, and that includes making the electorate fearful of what will happen if the other guy wins.

Though election campaigns filled with negative ads seem to last an eternity, they are relatively brief, and indeed, a consistently negative marketing spin for a consumer service or product would eventually wear thin. So fear is typically introduced to the sales process in more subtle ways.

A great example: In the musical "The Music Man," the grifter Harold Hill sells the idea of a boys' band not so much on the virtues of music but as being an alternative to a hitherto unperceived threat: the town's pool hall. If children play billiards, there will be "trouble in River City," he warns. Putting them in his band will not only bring them the joy of music, but save their souls.

I wonder how directly the I-got-your-back travel agent addresses clients' fears. I'd guess the agent would, during the course of a meeting with clients, discuss benefits the agency offers, but also would overtly discuss what can go wrong, and why buying from the agency offers a strong measure of protection and reassurance.

When done skillfully, this does not come across as fear-mongering, but rather makes the client feel better: Their anxieties are addressed directly, and they leave the conversation with greater confidence in your expertise.

It's important to remember that you're not actually selling fear when you raise potential problems; you're selling peace of mind. It might seem counterintuitive to introduce fear into discussions about honeymoons and vacations, but be assured that the fear was already present. When you bring it to the surface, you're actually beginning the work that prevents a dream trip from becoming a nightmare.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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