The Yin and Yang of Familiarity in Marketing My family have always gone on long vacations. We love exploring as everything is different. Different can be good, and different can be bad. Different is exciting and at the same time different can make people feel uneasy. I am sure, like you, whenever I return home I have a smile on my face as the old saying goes, ‘There is no place like home’.

I was returning home the other day after a key note speech in Helsinki, Finland I started to think what was it that makes me feel happy to come home. As I landed and walked through the airport I realised a key aspect was everything is familiar. Familiarity to us humans’ means safe and safe is very important as Maslow told us. Familiarity means we know what is going to happen. It means we don’t have to think much about it and we can relax and use our brain power on other things. Familiarity comes in many forms. When I reached home I sat in ‘my chair’. It’s very comfortable and it’s just right for me, firm, enveloping and well positioned. After being away I love those first few minutes of sitting in this chair and I find myself saying “Ahhhhh…..home at last”. Familiar is feeling content…

Familiarity is also about people. We are familiar with how people we know will behave. Just think about your family and friends. You are familiar with them, and they with you. They are predictable. They do things that you are comfortable with and you like, like my chair, and that makes you feel comfortable with them.

As I started to think about familiarity from a marketing perspective familiarity is also good. People know your product, hopefully they are loyal to your product because they like it and it is familiar. In the context of a Customer Experience on one hand this familiarity is good but on the other side it can be bad – as the old saying goes “Familiarity breeds contempt”. If everything is always too familiar, too predictable it can become boring. Many marriages have foundered on the fact that couples just get bored with each other. In business it may have started off as being something new that attracted the person to your company, it may have been exciting and different but after a while it just becomes the norm and can become boring. This is the point when people can stray, both in a marriage context and in a Customer Experience context.

So how do you spice things up without losing the familiarity?

In the Customer Experience context, familiarity means it meets Customer’s expectations. It’s not better or worse, it is just OK. I may be familiar with the experience but I also may not like it. Your process maybe inefficient and there are parts of it that Customers may think are stupid but they know what to do. For example Lorraine, my wife, deals with all of our finances. I earn the money and she spends it! Lorraine is very good at her job of spending our money! But every time Lorraine phones one of the credit card companies she knows that they will ask to speak to me to verify that she can talk to them about our account. We appreciate that this is for security reasons but my point is we still don’t like it, but now it’s a familiar part of the process. If they changed that it would be a major improvement in our eyes.

Sometimes you may think you need to change your entire experience and that could be the case. But don’t destroy the things people like and the things people are familiar with, without giving them some thought. For example; how many times have you been into a grocery store and they have decided to change the layout? People get annoyed. How many times have Facebook or some other favourite website changed the way they do things, supposedly for the better, and yet there is a backlash as people ‘don’t like’ the new way? Too often organizations change things in a Customer Experience for the benefit of the company and think ‘they won’t notice’ but the regular, loyal and therefore profitable Customers do. And you will be surprised at the type of backlash you can gain from changing something!

So what’s the solution….well back to my story….after being away for a while you tend to notice the small things that have changed. For example; I noticed a building that has started to be knocked down on my route home. I found myself looking at it and saying in my head “Oh no, they are knocking down that building” as if they should have asked my permission before they started! How could they change my world without asking me! It’s the little things you notice. It’s the 5% of the experience that you notice as the other 95% is so familiar to you. But the 5% is intriguing. The learning from this is that whilst I like familiarity I also like change. If your Customer Experience is poor you will want to do wholesale change, but once you have designed an experience that customers love, don’t just rest on your laurels. When we are training our clients on how to design a new Customer Experience we tell them to plan to make constant small changes that positively stimulate their customers as regular customers notice them and it stimulates them to keep their experience interesting. Therefore, if you have a number of things to change consider doing these over a period of time to simulate the customer and this should make Customers happier and keep their interest.

Colin Shaw is founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of four best-selling books & recognized Business Influencer by LinkedIn. Beyond Philosophy provide consulting, specialised research & training from our Global Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, USA.

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