Familiarity Breeds Customers: Branding at the Door

My dog, Martha, understands the fundamental advertising principles of brand consistency and product familiarity. Who’s a good dog??!?

I realized this one day as I returned to the house from a long walk and was at the door to come in. My normally quiet and happy black lab mix was on the other side of that door—barking, snarling, and sounding ready to take me down if I dared enter.

This was strange. I come home from work every night through that same door, and she never barks. But here she was, standing in the middle of the kitchen, all the fur standing up on her back, shouting at me. The moment she saw my face, though, she immediately commenced with her usual doggie dance that just means, “I’m glad to see you, will we eat soon?”

What was different about this arrival than when I come home every night?

I realized that the culprit here was familiarity. Or in this case, the lack of it. There is a consistent audio pattern to my normal evening return. Around the appointed time, Martha’s sharp ears hear this: my car rolling into the driveway… my engine turning off… the thump of my car door… my approaching footsteps… my key sliding into the lock and the door opening.

On the day of the barking and the fur Mohawk, I had approached the house in an unfamiliar way, walking onto the property instead of driving. The audio sequence was missing, and so Martha had no frame of reference for the person suddenly at the door. Surprised, she ditched “welcome” and went straight to “fight me”.

We are the same way. We like familiar music, familiar faces, familiar products. To that last point: if we’re familiar with a product, we’re more apt to have a positive feeling about it. Most of the time, we’re more apt to buy it.

In psychology, this is known as the Mere Exposure Effect. This is a phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.

The same principal applies to how radio stations select songs. My friend Blake Hayes of the Coast Morning Show here in Portland once explained to me why certain songs get played to death (I remember the summer that some listeners to Coast 93.1 left voicemail messages threatening self-harm if they heard Weezer’s version of “Africa” even one more time). “When a familiar song is played, listenership goes up,” he said. “When we play a song no one has heard before, listenership goes down. It’s that simple.” So how does a new song ever get added in? “We put it in what we call a sandwich. Real research has been done showing that if you ‘sandwich’ a new, unknown song between two already-familiar songs, listeners will stick around and eventually accept the new song.”

In advertising and retail, the Mere Exposure Effect (or Blake’s “Sandwich”) is also known as The Familiarity Principle. Familiarity is bred through consistency of presentation, and consistency of presence. Here is a quick checklist of items that should be the same (or at least close to the same) every time a consumer sees or hears your advertising:

  • Fonts. In print or web advertising, always use the same (or at least related) title and body fonts.
  • Voice. “Voice” means two things. Literally, it means that your radio and television commercials should use a regular spokesperson to read the commercials. Second, it means you should be consistent in the way your copy is written—don’t be offbeat, hip and young in one instance and then restrained, formal, and upscale in another.
  • Colors. Larger companies (McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, LL Bean, Sunday River, for example) have narrowed their color palettes down to extremely specific hues on the Pantone Matching System (PMS).
  • Music. This could be a custom jingle, that instrumental jazz cut, or no music at all.

Finally, you must be consistent in your presence. If your marketing budget won’t allow for a full multi-media assault, pick one or two media (radio, tv, print, online) and stick with them. Doing a quick one month “test” won’t be enough to establish familiarity in any medium—commit yourself to at least three months at a time. Ideally, go for six or even twelve month commitments.

While it is important to be creative and engaging by switching up offers and copy regularly, always do so within the structure of your consistent, established brand. You’re attempting to bring your message “home” to your current and future customers. They won’t let you through the door if they don’t recognize you.

And they’ll never hear what you’re saying if the dog is barking her head off the whole time.

Good dog, Martha!