Think negative!

Have you ever experienced the reluctancy of colleagues and clients to react positively to questions, thoughts or propositions that use words like "confront", "oppose", "counter-", "vs", "non-", "problem" etc.?

Using "negative" terms or terms that negate something is even considered somewhat unprofessional. As if we were in politics. (Which we probably are. Maybe writing planning blogs is motivated by the wish to create a planners’ world beyond micropolitics, but that's another story.)

Imagine the following piece of conversation:

Strategist: "Let me clarify what you just said: When you say 'evidence-based marketing' - what kind of practice you would like to contrast it with? Or let's put it this way: Which very concrete problems will be solved by evidence-based marketing that cannot be solved by existing marketing practices?"

Client, slightly annoyed: "I would not say 'problem', it's rather about enabling the organization to deliver marketing performance through modern technologies. We should not be occupied by thinking about what we want to avoid but the great opportunities we have."

In the made-up conversation above the consultant tries to understand what the client is talking about by asking him to describe the opposite of the buzzword he is using. It is probably the best method to find out what your counterpart might be thinking of when using certain terms - since most people simply are not willing and able to give a definition.

But the Strategist doesn't get an answer to his question. Instead, the Client is paraphrasing his buzz word in an even unclearer manner; now, even involving sacrosanct vocabulary like "opportunities" or "modern".

Note that the tabu concerning thinking about things by using negations is so dominant that the Client even takes the risk of the agency simply not understanding his briefing. Instead, he elevates the issue on an even higher level of "positive spirit" where it becomes something that cannot be questioned or discussed at all. The agency has to back up, retreat and hypothesize what the meaning of the brief might be.


While "negative" talk seems to violate certain codes of conduct in enterprises it can nevertheless be very useful for a strategist's thinking. Let me describe 3 techniques of what we provocatively could call "negative thinking".

1) The Clarifying Juxtaposition.

Technique: Juxtapose A with B in order to grasp what A is all about.

Example 1: When a brand has three brand values, one of them being "Britishness" you could try to find out which attributes of competing countries of origin your "Britishness" opposes. E.g. it is more understated than Italian brands, it is wittier than German brands, etc.

Example 2: You could juxtapose the whole category of interest to another one in order to find out more about the essential category drivers. E.g. you could think of cats and dogs as opposites to uncover insights for your cat food brand.
While dogs seem irrelevant to a cat food brand at a first glance - the second glance shows that by contrasting cat ownership with dog ownership you can better understand what is so special about having a cat, how cat owners see themselves etc. Indeed, cats are loved for their independent spirit while dogs are loved for their unconditional fidelity. Certainly, You could have arrived there without the juxtaposition but it is a shortcut to getting there - simply because it is more concrete than asking the overarching "What is it like to have a cat?".
Consider which other juxtapositions you could apply here to find out more about the category "living with a cat":
- living with cats vs. living with children
- my cat vs. other people's cat
- living with a cat baby vs. grown-up cat
- my old dead cat vs. getting a new cat, etc.

2) The Enemy.

Technique: (Re-)Define who or what you are against.

Example 1: Often products help people fight something. This is not only the case when it comes to obvious problem-solver categories like tooth paste or vacuum cleaners. Let's take Clayton Christensen's famous milkshake example which shows how milkshakes are used as boredom killers for commuters and less so as as anything primarily nutritional or taste-related.

Example 2: You could exchange the usual enemy for another one. For instance, Omo stopped the detergents’ ancient war against dirt and decided to attack parents’ fear of dirt. Again, they could have gotten there on a different path - without "enemy kind of thinking" - but the enemy framing is one of the ways to get there.

3) The Problem.

Technique: Clearly define what you are about to solve before going into positive solutions.

This is probably the most important "negative thinking" tool: Strategy as overcoming barriers and solving problems.

Example 1: Jon Steel reports a case from Porsche who found out that the main barrier to buying a Porsche was the user image normal people had of Porsche drivers. So their strategy was to show that Porsche drivers drive Porsche not to show-off but because they really love driving - like all car lovers do.

Instead of giving you further examples let me rather show you some further content from strategists who also stress the importance of problems as the pivots of strategy.