Disclaimer – views entirely my own, nothing to do with my employer.

Familiarity ≠best

Advertising seeks to persuade human beings to make one choice over another. A big part of this has been taking advantage of our tendency to substitute hard questions (“which can of beans would be the rationally best choice?”) for easier questions – very often substituting “best” for “most familiar”. Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow includes a chapter on this.

Much of the effectiveness of advertising depends on this principle – instead of evaluating the price, quality, nutritional benefits of a can of beans, the advertisers hope we’ll remember “Beans means Heinz”.

That strategy works – especially for products where we don’t expect a big upside from expending the effort to make a “better” choice (will that other can of beans really be so much better?), or where the downside of a wrong choice is (perceived as) high – I’ve never heard of car brand x, it’s safer to stay with a brand I’ve heard of.

But there are some powerful forces eroding the magic bullet of familiarity.

Howling into the void

Becoming “familiar” was never easy – you’d need a memorable message, you’d need a big budget to put it in front of your target audience, and you’d have to hammer home the message over many years. Today, I don’t think it’s even possible any more – no matter how much advertising spend you have, becoming “familiar” just through advertising would be unthinkable (if you’re aiming at a mainstream audience).

People are actively avoiding advertising if they can; if they can’t they ignore it. The decline of print audiences, and the fragmentation of linear TV means the “old” channels are becoming much less effective (even ignoring the fact that linear TV as a medium doesn’t look like it has a great future – nobody I know watches “TV” – it’s all streaming, on-demand, box-set and event-based viewing).

The big business success stories of the last decade – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Uber, AirBnB etc. – don’t advertise much. They use word-of-mouth and built-in mechanics like referral schemes – but most of all, they have a great, useful product.

From information scarcity to abundance

The “familiarity” model is based on information scarcity. If I have to chose a product in a super market, and I have no other information to hand,  instead of reading the label and making a comparison with similar products, it’s tempting to go for “which product have I heard of”.

And it’s not all that long ago that consumers didn’t have access to much other information. Before the Internet, you might know a few friends’ and family members’ opinion on something; you might read a magazine or a book; you might, for an important purchase, order a report from a consumers’ organisation.

Today, you can find out instantly what all your friends and family think about a product by asking on a social channel. You can find out what strangers think on review sites. You can find out every aspect of the product or service by running a quick search. And as we are all consuming more “information” every day, the chances of having no other information available are declining.

So, to become “familiar” is harder, more expensive, and less effective.

The end of the “Friday afternoon car”

In the 1980s, a friend bought a brand new car; it was an MG Metro. She owned the car for about 2 months before it broke down, so she took it back to the garage for a repair. 3 weeks later, it broke down again; after 6 months, the car had been back for 4 repairs. The mechanic at the garage introduced me to the phrase “Friday afternoon car” – the idea was that the factory workers wanted to get home for the weekend, so cars built on a Friday afternoon would be rushed, and suffer from problems.

It’s now pretty much impossible to buy a Friday afternoon car – even the cheapest, least prestigious car manufacturer is delivering a high-quality product that will do exactly what you expect, and will easily outlast its warranty period.

The same is true of most consumer goods (financial services are a notorious exception) – supermarket own-brand beans may taste different to the brand names, but they aren’t “worse”. Clothes from a discount store will last just as long as those from a high-street chain. You can watch NetFlix on a discount laptop just as well as on an Apple.

The value of “brand” and “familiarity” in customer decision making is declining – now that you cannot buy a “bad” product any more, the safety of going with the familiar brand is declining in importance.