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Rashi Goel

A Good Marketer Balances Novelty and Familiarity

A Good Marketer Balances Novelty and Familiarity
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Our brain wants to save energy

In the previous newsletter #20, we discussed that the interplay between the three parts of our brain wires unconscious biases into our psyche. The first bias is SimplicityRead the previous newsletter here.

Today, we explore Novelty.

Our subconscious brain is like a basement with infinite space where it files every single piece of information (emotions, experiences, memories etc.) into patterns. 

Why patterns? Because patterns allow lightening fast response. 

For example, for the caveman (or woman), “Lion Equals Danger”, was hardwired into the brain, since even a micro second’s hesitation made the difference between ending up in the lion’s tummy that evening or wearing the lion’s hide for warmth for winter.

Our brains evolved to automatically respond to regular, expected patterns. That is why, it prefers the familiar over the novel, because processing familiar patterns consumes less energy. 

This is what it looks like.

But the environment frequently throws the new and different in front of us, which could be danger or an opportunity.

Since danger threatens our survival, the brain’s instinctive response to novelty is fear and avoidance.

On the other hand, if our brain keeps avoiding anything novel, we might survive, but not thrive. We might miss new opportunities – food, a mate, a drinking water source, or even new inventions like fire. 

To offset this, novelty is accompanied by a dopamine high that pushes our brain to get curious and explore. And the fear shifts to a butterflies in the stomach feeling… we explore and determine if the ‘new’ is a threat or an opportunity. 

This is what it could look like.

This mixture of chemical reactions ensures that anything that breaks the familiar pattern sets off sirens in the brain, blood rushes in, and all senses are signaled to attention.

Anything that’s new, different or unusual catches our eye. A new phone, a new working environment, a new person. Changing our hair color, wearing new clothes, visiting a new place. In fact, we can even be drawn to novelty without being conscious of it. 

To cut a long story short.

  1. The familiar is met with automated responses, the new is noticed instantly
  2. The familiar takes less brain energy, the new consumes more energy and is processed by the brain to recode new patterns

Marketing Tightrope

Our brain prefers the familiar, but notices the new.

We find comfort in the familiar but excitement in the new.

Too much of the new might overwhelm the brain and lead to rejection.

That is why, marketing has to walk the tight rope between the familiar and the new.

Let’s see how.

Dance between novelty and familiarity

In a wonderful article on Medium, Steve Genco recommends that we view novelty and familiarity not at conflict with each other, but along a continuum. 

Source: Steve Genco in Medium

While his article is definitely worth a read. I summarize the key points here.

He says, since anything that is novel does not match the existing patterns stored in our subconscious brain, we struggle to understand it. Our brain enters a state of confusion. And it expends energy to learn. If the learning is complete, the new thing that we found confusing, becomes interesting. 

Take for instance, our first time using the Japanese toilet. We will be perplexed by all the fancy buttons. Curiosity kicks in and once we understand what each button means, we find it interesting. We take pictures, tell our friends, and look forward to using it again!

Over time, what we once found so fascinating becomes routine and even boring. We enter autopilot mode. Our brain spends less energy each time and gets lulled into a sense of comfort. Staying too long with the familiar leads to boredom, which needs to be interrupted by adding a touch of new to the familiar. And this becomes an endless loop.

He talks about a design principle “MAYA- Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”. When designing a new product or packaging, design something new, but within recognizable elements of familiarity. He explains this by saying, “People like their product novelty in small doses, preferably intertwined with the feeling of comfort associated with familiarity and category typicality.” 

He goes on to say that marketers have to balance novelty and familiarity depending on the purpose and placement of the marketing effort. Marketing that wants short-term actions from consumers needs to dial up novelty to grab attention. While marketing designed for long-term equity building needs to build on familiar brand associations. For placement, TV lends itself to more familiar and less disruptive messaging, while viewers of digital media are more responsive to disruptive messaging.

This gives us a wonderful marketing mental model with the following insights:

  1. Do the ‘new’, but within the familiar – MAYA principle
  2. Make the ‘new’ easy for consumers. Include enough explanation to bridge the gap between confusion and interesting
  3. Over familiarity and repetition can lead to fatigue and lapsing, therefore, keep burnishing your product and message with the ‘new’
  4. New brands, digital media and short-term objectives gain from going big on the new
  5. While long-term objectives, large brands, and TV messaging benefit from familiar and comfortable reminders

Let’s see brief examples of some of these. 

Tik Tok Videos

Tik Tok (or Reels) demonstrates the MAYA principle perfectly.
On these platforms, we become dopamine addicted zombies, scrolling through short videos endlessly. We don’t get bored of the endless stream of different people dancing or lip synching to the same exact music, dance steps or dialogue. 

That is because the context is familiar, but each rendition is novel. 

‘How to’ videos

If consumers do not understand a new product or how to use it, they will reject it. One of the ways brands make it easy, is through ‘how to’ videos.
Technology makes our life so much easier, but it is also difficult to use and understand. That is why there are millions of ‘how to’ videos and hacks to tackle any small question from setting up a mail chimp newsletter, to changing the iPhone password, or resolving a bug in a Samsung TV. 

But even the more everyday products come with clear ‘how to’ instructions, without which, we would be in a constant state of confusion about how to use them.

We get lots of calls from consumers asking us how to cook Maggi even after almost every Indian has consumed it. Recipe videos are some of the most watched content worldwide.

New brand launch stunts

New brands get only one chance to make a bold attention grabbing move. 

The iconic 1984 ad by Apple is a masterstroke. I am sure a lot of you know the story already, but for those who don’t, this ad announced the launch of the Macintosh. The masterstroke was that it was aired nationally only once. Read about it here, and watch it here. Not only was the ad very well made, but the fact that it was aired only once got it millions of dollars of free publicity.

Richard Branson is the God of attention grabbing stunts. He has launched all his new brands that way. Check out his audacious marketing here.

Cred – not everyone gets it

Cred launched in India with a series of disruptive advertisements. They earned a lot of conversation and everyone in corporate India heard of them.

Full marks for ticking the box on doing the ‘new’ as a new brand. 

The shock value of the ads is so high, that the brain does not process what they actually do. They are right, everyone really does not get it.

Even once we understand that Cred gives us cashback if we pay credit cards bills on their platform, there are several unanswered questions . How does it work? Is it free? How much cashback? What if I have late fees on my credit card, will they help me get it waived? And the most important question of all for a finance product- can I trust them with my money and my credit card number?

See the attention grabbing ads that don’t explain the product here.

Cred Ad-Govinda
Cred Ad- Madhuri
Cred Ad-Rahul

New Improved

Marketers spend their work days obsessed with creating “New Improved”. And consumers appreciate it. New improved is common in technology. New models and software upgrades are more frequent than our wardrobe upgrades! In consumer products, L’Oreal Excellence Creme improves its product like clockwork every 2-3 years. 

I worked on Excellence Creme for two years and had relaunched the product with a better conditioning shampoo. Every few years since, the hair color and post-color wash technology has been upgraded.

This is the latest version, with a hair mask instead of the hair conditioner, with the addition of a new shampoo. The gloves are thicker and the graphics have been improved.

L’Oreal Excellence hair color kit

No detail is too small for L’Oreal. This goes a long way to keep L’Oreal consumers actively loyal and willing to pay premium prices.

New Variants

Established brands especially, give comfort and familiarity to consumers, and that is a source of their strength. Without changing the core, they keep adding novelty around the citadel by launching variants. New flavors, new colors, new shapes are all examples of this. 

Brushing our teeth everyday? Yeah boring. New toothpaste flavors add a tiny bit of excitement into the brushing ritual and keep the morning fresh (pun intended).

But the brand that really takes the cake when it comes to adding excitement to the familiar, is Oreo. They launch very creative and topical limited editions to keep the excitement sky high and the brand fresh.

They launched a Red, White and Blue limited edition for 4th of July in 2020.

Red, White and Blue Oreo

And a Pride Oreo also in the same year. 

Pride Oreo

Game of Thrones Oreo

Game of Thrones Oreo

And many many more.

Novelty taken too far

I have shared this story in my E-Book. There are times when large brands are taxed by the consumer for going too far with the ‘new’. Everyone know about the fiasco when Coke changed its flavor.

A slightly lesser known example is of Tropicana. When they did not stick to the MAYA principle and changed EVERYTHING in the pack design. They paid a price by losing consumers. They learnt fast and brought back the old design very quickly. 

Tropicana design change taken too far

The arts

There are exceptions to everything.
In the world of art and culture, we revere the new and happily pay a premium in the form of complete brain attention.

These are activities of leisure and self actualization. That is why in art, music and theatre, high level of novelty is appreciated.

Scent Marketing

The beauty about writing consistently is that I am now able to connect the dots between topics.

This dance between familiarity and novelty reminds me of an earlier essay on ‘Sense of Scent”.

A key insight from this essay was that to make the product fragrance work well, make the familiar surprising, and the surprising familiar.

This sentence that I wrote many months back, summarizes  the whole point of this newsletter!

Until next time then, when we will dive into Automation Bias.