By Michael Daddo, Managing Partner, The Shannon Company

Think for a moment of the brands you choose personally. They might be new like Uber, big like Qantas, or local like my favourite pizza restaurant, Ciao Bella.

Have you ever wondered why successful brands seem so comfortable to us, and why we turn to them without really thinking?

Traditional theory around why we gravitate towards some brands and not others suggests that consumers mostly make deliberate, rational decisions based on conscious logic.

Behavioural science tells us this is not so.

Instead, we use a process that psychologists call ‘processing fluency’ – where we use past experience, intuition, opinions, thoughts and preferences combined with the speed and ease with which we make the decision.

Critical to this processing fluency is familiarity with a brand’s ‘cues’ – its name and visual identity including colour, symbols and packaging. Assuming the product or service performs, the more we experience these cues, the more fluent we become and the more habitual the behaviour.

As experts in behaviour change communications and building brands, this insight is one my company has used to successfully challenge the traditional model around how to change behaviours.

What makes for a familiar brand

Think for a moment of your favourite supermarket and how annoying it is if something moves or your favourite shaving cream has changed packaging.

Facebook provides a really good illustration of the power of familiarity. In a recent article in Harvard Business Review A.G Lafley and Roger L Martin noted:

“Facebook has been building cumulative competitive advantage. Initially it had some attractive features that My Space lacked making it a good value proposition, but more important to its success has been the consistency of its look and feel…When it made its now-famous extension from desktop to mobile the company ensured the user’s mobile experience was highly consistent with their desktop experience.”1

Familiarity and habit go hand in hand

Familiarity helps build habit and vice versa – and that’s better than loyalty because as behavioural theory tells us habit is the best predictor of behaviour and the hardest to change.

As the Lego CEO noted in reviewing how he turned the business around some 13 years ago – “Habit is how we build the (emotional) connection. People build habits by doing the same thing repeatedly. But the habits eventually turn into values… If you can make your brand a value – a part of someone’s identity – you have a really powerful competitive advantage.”2

As with much brand building and marketing it seems like common sense but consider how often brands and organisations change, disrupting familiarity in the mistaken aim of staying contemporary in a changing world.

The art of success is to change or innovate within brand, building on familiarity – asking the essential question “what else can I do for my customer?”

4 rules for building familiarity for your brand

Here are 4 basic rules from the aforementioned Harvard article I believe are key to building competitive advantage and familiarity for your brand

1. Become popular early

There are many ways to do this like aggressive price offers in the beginning, using ambassadors, or free sampling. Ebay, Google, Twitter, Instagram Uber, AirBnb all made their service free so users grow and deepen their habits that can then be monetised. My gyms use specific time based incentives to habitualise behaviour, local restaurants use wine offers –Transurban, a toll road company, devised an offering of a month free on new roads – a time in which people established new travel habits – before introducing the tolls, thereby optimising traffic growth and revenue.

2. Design for habit

As Art Markman, psychologist at University of Texas notes, there are some basics. Keep consistent those elements of design that can be seen from a distance so you can be found quickly and become more familiar. Distinctive colours, type and images are critical in a world that is ever increasingly becoming visual.

3. Innovate inside the brand

In other words innovate but keep elements familiar, build familiarity and comfort with your brand and you will increase your competitive advantage.

4. Keep communication simple

One of the fathers of behavioural science Daniel Kahneman saw unconscious, habit driven decision making as thinking fast and conscious decision making as thinking slow. Too often marketers and advertisers play in the latter. Think fast like the simplicity of the Apple IPhone marketing or indeed Compare the Pair advertising for Industry Super Funds.

This article was provided by Michael Daddo, Managing Partner of the Shannon Company, not by AustralianSuper. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, who made their comments based on their experience and expertise.

1 A.G. Lafley and Roger L.Martin, ‘Customer Loyalty is overrated’, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2017
2 ‘A conversation with Jorgen Knudstorp’, cochairman of the LEGO Brand Group, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2017