This post originally appeared in Fast Company.
Is new always better? When it comes to fine art and oat milk, not necessarily.
Recently, I visited an exhibit by Brian Donnelly, also known as KAWS, at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. His larger-than-life sculptures and playful use of colors in his paintings have made his art incredibly famous, both in the art world and beyond, and his style is easily recognizable and highly coveted.
But what makes his art so appealing in the first place?
The Mere-Exposure Effect and the Value of Familiarity
The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon that suggests that people tend to develop a preference for things they are exposed to repeatedly. In other words, the more familiar we are with something, the more we tend to like it.
KAWS’ art is particularly compelling because of his clever use of beloved and recognizable characters from famous cartoons like Disney or Sesame Street.
At first glance, you might easily recognize Elmo or Mickey Mouse. However, as you look closer, you’ll see that KAWS has created his own interpretation of these popular figures by adding his unique artistic touch to them.
This approach made his art attractive to audiences everywhere, and in some cases, people are willing to pay top dollar for it.
For instance,The KAWS Album, which sold for $14.8 million in 2019, references two iconic pop culture symbols: The Beatles’ 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and The Simpsons.
If that doesn’t demonstrate the value of familiarity, I don’t know what does.
The KAWS Playbook: 3 Considerations for Challenger Brands
The correlation between KAWS’ success and the mere exposure effect holds valuable lessons for challenger brands looking to disrupt established markets. Challenger brands often face the uphill battle of introducing innovative products or ideas that may not yet have the same level of familiarity as their incumbents.
So, what can challenger brands and marketers learn from KAWS? How can they use pattern recognition and the mere exposure effect to accelerate the adoption of their innovations? Let’s break it down:
Why the Best Innovation Comes in Familiar Forms
When applied to marketing, the mere-exposure effect can be a powerful tool that helps introduce consumers to a new or innovative product. The Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) industry is renowned for using this strategy effectively, particularly by using familiar points of reference when introducing an alternative to an established product.
Take Oatly, the original oat milk company. When they launched their milk-alternative product back in 1994, they chose to package it in something familiar to all of us: milk cartons.
Recognizing that people are uncomfortable with too much change, this move allowed customers to visualize oat milk as a true alternative to cow’s milk. It’s the same reason why children’s vitamins are often sold in gummy bear form and why Impossible Meat bleeds like ground beef–reference something familiar when introducing something new can make a product more appealing and easier to accept until eventually, it becomes part of daily life.
Pair Functionality with Familiarity
When CBD was introduced into the wellness industry, it was initially available in a combustible format, which, while effective, presented a barrier to widespread adoption. However, Recess, an innovative beverage company, changed the game by offering a more relatable and functional way of consuming CBD: through a can of sparkling water. This strategic move transformed the way people consumed CBD from a niche activity into a mainstream habit. They even came up with a catchy tagline, “canned a feeling,” to mark their product as not only a beverage, but as a lifestyle choice.
By pairing functionality with familiarity, Challenger Brands can facilitate consumers’ adoption of new habits and ideas.
Lean into Nostalgia
If there’s one thing we learned from Barbie’s latest release, it’s that nostalgia combined with a timely message is a powerful brand strategy.
Mattel successfully tapped into the collective memory and affection of their original audience by introducing their beloved toy to a new generation in theaters worldwide. The result? A mega-successful nostalgic comeback.
In a similar way, Atari mirrored this strategy when they introduced the Atari 2600 console earlier this year. Although a household name and pioneer in the video game industry, Atari understood it would take more than just nostalgia to stand out in the gaming systems industry. Their modern iteration was not just a reissue of the classic console but a reimagination that combined the retro aesthetic and beloved game library with updated technology to meet today’s expectations.
This balancing act of old and new set the foundation of its marketing campaigns, invoking the collective fondness of longtime fans while appealing to the modern sensibilities and gaming standards of new audiences.
When it comes to challenger brands that aim to disrupt markets, striking a balance between the new and familiar is a great way to encourage consumer acceptance, and even enthusiasm. This shows that while innovation is exciting, familiarity is enduring, and the most successful brands are those that can harness the power of both at the same time.