Imagine signing up for a virtual game where you need to complete a word search puzzle. There are two different puzzles to choose from - one where you have to find 30 words designed by Karl Cheese, and another designed by Tom Hanks, where you have to find 40 words. Although the first option seems more optimal in a time crunch, most people choose to go with Tom Hanks’ puzzle because they are familiar with him. This highlights a phenomenon that occurs when customers perceive products and brands.
This preference for the familiar is due to the Mere Exposure Effect, which is a human tendency to develop preferences for things simply because they are already familiar with them. This effect was first discovered in the 1960s by a series of experiments conducted by Robert Zajonc. He suggested that mere exposure to stimuli leads to the familiarity of those stimuli, leading to greater positive evaluations. His experiment showed that novel Chinese characters elicited higher ratings of “goodness” if they were shown more frequently to non-Chinese writers. He also noted that the Mere Exposure Effect does not depend on the conscious experience of familiarity, i.e., so even if respondents are unaware of the objects they are seeing, those objects will still elicit positive ratings.
Brand-Building Implications of Mere Exposure Effect
Familiarity can serve important functions for brands and organizations, especially to increase predictability. Customers feel safer about — and are more attracted to — familiar stimuli than unfamiliar alternatives. The implications of the Mere Exposure Effect are especially prominent in a time crunch when people rely on mental shortcuts (i.e., heuristics). This was demonstrated by Litt & Shiv (2011) in their experiment, which showed that time pressure increased the frequency of participants choosing a longer familiar task option instead of a shorter unfamiliar alternative. Therefore, time pressure makes participants flee to a familiar, and sometimes suboptimal, option rather than an unknown alternative.
The Mere Exposure Effect is hypothesized to be driven by fluency with the stimuli. There are two kinds of fluency - perceptual and conceptual. The ease with which consumers can identify a target, i.e., process its physical features, is known as perceptual fluency. On the other hand, conceptual fluency means how easily the target comes to the mind of consumers (corresponding to mental availability) and pertains to the processing of meanings. A great example of a brand that leverages both perceptual and conceptual fluency is Apple. Its multiple iterations of earphones continue to maintain their familiar form even when they went wireless. Similarly, Apple uses images and videos of individuals dancing to music to create a context that helps customers understand the use of AirPods and keep them top-of-mind.
Some recent work on e-commerce settings has demonstrated that providing context to neutral and ambiguous products improves the likeability and processing fluency of those products. Such examples highlight the need for brands to have both high perceptual and high conceptual fluency to elicit more favorable perceptions of their target product. Similarly, marketers need to refresh and build memory structures for the brand in a meaningful way. For instance, Red Bull does a great job in leveraging the principles of the Mere Exposure Effect in their advertisements. While being consistent across all markets worldwide, they remain true to their brand with their signature brand assets. Optimizing their brand assets creates a sense of familiarity and makes it easy for customers to recognize their brand.
Hotspex: How Can We Help?
At Hotspex, we help brands identify and leverage their distinctive brand assets. One brand asset that marketers can utilize is a celebrity or spokesperson. Marketers can increase their brand familiarity by relying on a familiar spokesperson or a public figure that can guide the purchase of their products. Hotspex can help you identify which public figures align best with your current and future brand’s image. Working with a leading sports apparel brand, Hotspex used proprietary emotional maps to advise the brand on its best spokesperson fit.
The Mere Exposure Effect explains our tendency to prefer things we're familiar with rather than unfamiliar ones. Brands can leverage this principle by choosing the right assets for the brand that can build familiarity. They must also leverage conceptual and perceptual fluency to keep their brands top-of-mind in the right way amongst competitors, all of which we here at Hotspex can help them achieve.
Sources: Harrison, A. A. (1977). Mere Exposure. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 39-83.
Hekkert, P., Thurgood, C., & Whitfield, T. A. (2013). The Mere Exposure Effect for Consumer Products as a Consequence of Existing Familiarity and Controlled Exposure. Acta Psychologica, 144(2), 411-417.
Litt, A., Reich, T., Maymin, S., & Shiv, B. (2011). Pressure and Perverse Flights to Familiarity. Psychological Science, 22(4), 523-531.
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2p2), 1.