Sometimes it takes a huge event to make people look at their
assumptions in a new light. Taken by surprise by the EU Referendum and
Brexit, British marketers have had to think carefully about how well
they knew the people they were selling to. And, as a fascinating new study
by the Futures Company points out, it’s not just a British thing. All
over Europe and beyond there are vast groups of consumers who feel a
sense of loss in the face of change, and respond strongly to the
familiar. As in politics, so in marketing: for a big chunk of the public, novelty and disruption aren’t particularly big draws.
Of course, this is why innovation research so often focuses on early adopters: get them on board, and diffusion across the population will follow. This is the innovation equivalent of trickle-down economics – an excuse to focus on a segment you’re sympathetic to with the hope that everyone else will benefit… eventually. After all, marketers themselves tend to be novelty-seeking types who talk a big game about
the inevitability of change. Forcing them to put themselves in the shoes of more
conservative or change-averse consumers can be a wrench. But change-aversion isn’t something you can sweep under the segmentation rug. Because while
history may be on the side of change, psychology isn’t.
As human beings we are wired to prefer the familiar: if we recognize
something quickly, it seems like a better choice. This processing
fluency heuristic – or just Fluency, for short – is one of the foundations of decision-making. And it’s used by every consumer to make judgements, not just those who are culturally or politically averse to change.
The Futures Company’s recommendation to appeal to the nostalgic or
conservative consumer is ‘cautious innovation’ ‘ balancing
future-focused new product lines with more immediately familiar ones.
This is sound thinking. But given that everyone ‘ not just the
change-averse ‘ uses Fluency to make decisions ‘ it’s only half the
story. Familiarity isn’t just for nostalgists. The key thing to realise
about Fluency is that you can build it.
If you use research to identify your brand’s unique assets ‘ the things people most
immediately associate with it ‘ you can build that into how you present
your innovations. This works for the radically new as well as the cosily
familiar: you can ‘bake in’ new assets which the launch and promotional
campaigns can lean heavily on.
When the iPod was first launched, for instance, it was certainly
disruptive new technology. But Apple’s marketing around it didn’t
emphasise the tech, or its many features ‘ it relied on the simple image
of those distinctive white headphones. The white headphones became such
a well-known symbol of the iPod that at least one police force issued
warnings against them ‘ as criminals were targeting anyone they saw
wearing a set. A brand’s unique assets in action!
With investment and focus, brand assets can become familiar very
quickly. In the UK, banking giant Santander was a newcomer only a few
years ago. Now it’s carved out a large chunk of market share, and ‘owns’
the colour red, thanks to pushing it as an asset in its marketing. But
heritage can certainly play a role. There are many brands whose vaults
are stuffed with distinctive assets which were put to pasture because of
a new-broom marketing director, not because the public was tired of
Whether you’re launching something new or looking to the past,
though, it’s crucial to remember that familiarity and Fluency are at the
root of all successful innovation ‘ not just the cautious kind.