drone on the beach


By Roger Sollenberger

August 24, 2018

Editor's Note: Roger covers a lot of really insightful ground here, including pizza, politics and sex, so I leave you to it.
Related: I got my kid a little drone last year, and when I showed him how to use it “safely,” I crashed into power lines. Thanks to Roger, I am now proud to call myself a “bad dad.”

When I used to introduce myself as working for 3D Robotics, a drone company, I’d follow up with “We don't make military drones; we make consumer drones — you know, flying cameras.” But when I start to clarify that today, people usually cut in and say, "Yeah, yeah, I know."

That's not because everyone knows our company now. No, the reason people react like I think they're idiots is because our society's first-definition understanding of the word "drone" has evolved. Now, whenever I'm interrupted, I feel proud, because as a marketer I had a hand in that evolution. Our company redefined our brand and helped redefine the perception of an entire industry, all by reclaiming a word.

Behavioral economics explains, in part, why our plan "drones for good" had such a positive effect on perception and behavior — including elements of loss aversion, framing and information avoidance. Those theories are functions of a linguistic concept philosopher Michel Foucault called "reverse discourse." Reverse discourse flips power through the reclamation of language: Take a negative term and turn it into a statement of power and positive identity.

Reverse discourse flips power through the reclamation of language: Take a negative term and turn it into a statement of power and positive identity. 

Many brands have benefited from this principle, but the most instructive examples are acts of cultural reclamation. Politics, for instance: "nasty woman;" "bad hombre;" "deplorable." All of them insults that the insulted reclaimed as a badge of honor. President Trump has masterfully flipped “FAKE NEWS”: The term originally applied to a rash of dubious pro-Trump/anti-Clinton articles and social media memes, but Trump flipped it into a battle cry against press critical of him.

A bad word — even a bad image — can make for some sweet PR.

Lesson one: Don't fight the truth

I’m going to go out on a limb and say it's not … “good”… when the name of your product ignites the fear of 1984-style government surveillance and fiery executions delivered in anonymity from the sky.

As editorial director in those early years of drones, I was responsible for our company’s consumer-facing communication and branding language. I had a few options. The drone community, at the time mostly geeks, wasn't short on acronyms: UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles); UAS (unmanned aerial systems); sUAS (small unmanned aerial systems); RPA (remotely piloted aircraft). But we wanted to expand sales from “pros” to “pros, Joes and bros,” and tech speak would turn those guys off. We’d have to educate them before we could hook them. The biggest consumer company — a Chinese manufacturer called DJI — chose to bypass the debate altogether with the playful "flying camera" label, but we wanted to be taken seriously.

We knew people would see any of those non-“drone” terms for what they were: cop-outs. We also knew everyone would probably call our products "drones" anyway. It was out of our hands, so instead of leaning into the wind, we chose to fill our sails with it.

We didn't know it then, but we'd encountered one of Foucault's observations about the social prohibition of sexual discourse. (Sex and drones: Together at last!) 

Foucault noted that when sexuality is publicly repressed it has an opposite effect: It makes us more aware of sex. The ever-present shadow puts us on guard against our own social behavior. Some of us even feel the need to patrol others. It can actually sharpen our desire. In other words, repression creates another version of public discourse: tacit but subversive. Repression doesn’t work; it just moves the conversation to other channels. For instance, in the case of sex, the taboo emerged in the subversive and sometimes ironic language of popular music and fashion.

You can use kitty litter, but your guests can still smell it — and they know what it’s covering up.

Lesson two: How to apply lesson one

When I got pushback for dodging the “drone” question in media interviews, I knew I was being disingenuous. No matter which term we used, drones would always be drones. Alternatives were a turn-off.  You can use kitty litter, but your guests can still smell it — and they know what it’s covering up. 

Customers know you want to control how they perceive your product, and people don't like to be manipulated. They don't like to feel dumb, and our tech-obsessed consumers certainly weren't dumb. 

Customers know you want to control how they perceive your product, and people don't like to be manipulated. 

We had a CEO, however, who, as a New York Times bestseller, had made his name selling people on the power of the counterintuitive, Malcolm Gladwell-style. He had the same instinct I did about using all those euphemisms, and as a company we made the decision to embrace the word "drone." Our CEO summed up the strategy pretty well: "'Drone' is our 'queer.'" 

The analogy, though arrogant and a little inappropriate, was on the money. In psychology and linguistics, this principle goes by a number of names, among them reverse discourse, reclaiming, co-optation, linguistic re-appropriation and self-labeling. Studies show that the use of these tactics not only makes you feel more in control, it can change the way others see both you and the term itself. A 2013 study published in Psychological Science  found that participants who self-labeled with a negative term — specifically in this study, "queer" —  felt more powerful. It also caused other people to feel more positively about the term itself.

A 2003 study at Northwestern University reported the same effect: "Where 'queer' had connoted undesirable abnormality, by the fact that it is used by the group to refer to itself, it comes to connote pride in the groups’ unique characteristics … Re-appropriation allows the label’s seemingly stable meaning to be open to negotiation."  

That last part applies to marketing and branding — especially re-branding. It's futile for a start-up to try to sell the world on a new term. It's much easier to change how people see a word they already know. Lesson: Try to change the way people connect a negative word or image to your brand. This makes the problem smaller and more manageable; makes you stand out as the “good” guys; and can help change a perception of an industry. 

Try to change the way people connect a negative word or image to your brand. 

It's also cool. Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics at Monash University, wrote,  "Linguistic, psychological and neurological studies all confirm that it’s forbidden words that are the most arousing, memorable and evocative of all language stimuli." That's a marketer's dream. Those same studies also confirm the next logical step: Sexiness diminishes with repetition, and shock value decreases over time. (Editor’s note: Don’t I know it!)

So if you want to soften a word, just use it a lot. We ultimately wanted to soften the connotation of “drones.”

Okay, we knew what we wanted to do. How'd we do it?

Lesson three: The opposite of native advertising

We took every major media opportunity to talk about drones, even if it meant responding to bad press. Every time "drones" came up, we first embraced reality and then pivoted to redefine the word, our product and our brand. Yeah, we sold drones — but these are drones for good. Someone in the press remarked we were doing "whatever the opposite of native advertising is." That was astute. Native advertising — e.g., company-sponsored articles purchased and placed in legit publications — can raise flags, especially when targeting savvy consumers. But if a company embraces bad news, those consumers will more likely stick around and accept the reverse of discourse.

I went so far as to write a blog about an art installation in Pakistan that made international headlines: A giant picture of a little girl who had been killed in a drone strike, laid out in a field so it was visible from the sky — that is, from the drones that killed her. Not exactly great publicity, but I interviewed one of the artists behind the project and redirected the conversation to uses of drone technology beyond the military. He was a humanitarian, so it turned out he was actually pro-drone. That is, pro-good drones. Pro-our drones. Customers connected with the article, with our company and even with me personally. That’s how you hook someone into a brand.

Behavioral principles at play

A few theories of behavioral economics help explain why this strategy has worked. 

There is the framing effect, one of the principles undergirding Tversky and Kahneman's prospect theory. A brand can frame consumer choices in a positive or a negative way, and that has bearing on the consumer's decision. Particularly relevant is the technique of attribute framing. There’s positive and negative framing. For an example of the former, some food brands push the fact their products contain "good" (unsaturated) fat. That's a little transparent and raises flags for savvy consumers (like ours). Sometimes, then, negative framing can be more effective. 

A brand can frame consumer choices in a positive or a negative way, and that has bearing on the consumer's decision. 

This isn’t just a strategy unique to our circumstances: Domino's Pizza, in response to an infamous 2009 viral video, launched a bizarre negative ad campaign. CEO Patrick Doyle went so far as to acknowledge that his pizza, and I quote, "sucks." Bam. Headlines, and a collective sigh of relief: Yeah, Domino's did suck.

Both of us also dealt with the theory of information avoidance. Our company — like Domino’s — couldn't avoid the negative press, but we both understood that negative information helps people make decisions. It also opens doors for feedback that can help a company predict its customers’ future behavior. Information avoidance can also calcify biases and polarize opinions. My takeaway: It's a bad idea to avoid negative information, but if you’re the messenger, you have more control over its effect.

We also confronted loss aversion. As Domino’s knew, too, the pain of loss is double the pleasure of winning. Brands tend to be overly cautious, especially in response to difficult or embarrassing problems. In an industry characterized by breakneck competition and disruption, such as the tech sector, it's often more risky to be cautious. There’s sometimes — but not always — more to lose if you don’t try the counterintuitive. 

The payoffs

In the quarter that Domino's launched its counterintuitive campaign, its sales rose 14.3 percent. Overall that year they rose 9.9 percent.

The results for my company, at least initially, were also pretty good. In less than two years we grew from a Silicon Valley start-up that employed a few dozen people into North America's largest drone manufacturer, employing more than 300 people on three continents. We became a thought leader and ambassador for the industry, and we earned free publicity and millions of impressions from the most influential media companies in the world.

Brand psychology isn't everything. You’ve got to back it up with your product.

Of course, brand psychology isn't everything. You’ve got to back it up with your product. Our drones didn't exactly work how they were supposed to, and it wasn't long before our massive Chinese competitor, DJI, crushed us. Ironically, the massive DJI also benefited more from behavioral effects linked to negative PR: Whenever something bad happened with drones in the news, the story almost invariably defaulted to an image of DJI's ubiquitous white flying camera.

But even though my old company is a shadow of its former self, part of our legacy lives on: DJI no longer calls its products merely "flying cameras." They're just drones.

By Roger Sollenberger


Get the latest behavioral
science insights.