Familiarity Bias



“I’ve a feeling I’ve been here, done this, heard this, seen this thing before…”

You may have heard of the “3x repetitions” rule, where a person won’t be aware of your brand or marketing campaign until they have been exposed to it three times. I’m not convinced about the specific number of repetitions, but it is true that people don’t usually learn things fully the first time. Usually it takes several repetitions of a fact or a song or an exposure to a brand or a business that we become aware of them. The simpler the message, the catchier the jingle, the faster we become aware of it.

Getting to that magic awareness number was easier in years gone by. The available channels to communicate with consumers was narrow. Purchasing air time or print space in just a small number of commercial television channels, radio stations and magazine pages was all it took. Soon everyone knew who you were. Now the number of channels to reach consumers is off the scale, and our ability to avoid marketing messages is on the rise, making the landscape more difficult for brands to expose us to the required level of repetition.

There is a psychological effect called the mere-exposure effect. It’s essentially a bias towards the things we are already familiar with. We have an instinctive preference for and feel more positive about experiences, brands, music, people and products we already know.

Have you been driving in your car, listening to the radio and heard a song for the first time? When we hear something for the first time, it’s all new and we don’t know what to expect. It takes hearing a song a couple more times to be able to recognise it from the intro and a couple more listens before you find yourself singing along.

Did you see Saturday night’s Eurovision Song Contest from Lisbon? It’s one of Europe’s more bizarre annual events. The number of countries involved in this contest has dramatically increased since it started in the 1950s, largely to do with the changing geographical and political European landscape. It has grown in size so much that the contest now has to be arranged into semi-final heats, before the winners of those progress to the grand final.

This year 43 nations participated. 37 of them competed in one of two semi-finals earlier in the week and the winners of those got to sing again at the main final event. The other 6 participating nations were able to go straight to the final. They were the host nation (Portugal) plus the “big five”. The big five are the five European nations (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK) that contribute the most financially to the European Broadcasting Union for the running of the contest and who get a pass straight to the grand final as part of the deal.

We think of this as an advantage because it removes the risk of getting bumped out at the semi-final stage (which would be highly likely for the UK in particular!) But if we think about this through the lens of exposure and familiarity, it could actually be a disadvantage.

The contest winners are decided by a complex voting system, which has changed a number of times in an effort to reduce the impact of voting bias, where countries simply voted for their neighbours and closest political allies. Currently the voting system is 50% from expert judging panels and 50% of the public vote from each participating country. Simply put, if you want to win, you don’t just need a well constructed song, you also need spark and personality and likeability, and a story. You need to win the hearts of the people of Europe.

26 acts contested the grand final, 6 of which were awarded an automatic place, and 20 that had earned their place from their performance in one of the live semi-finals a few days earlier.

The voting public had already heard these 20 semi-final acts before, had already decided which ones they liked, had probably spent a day or two casually discussing them with their friends, and had already voted for early favourites.

In contrast, the acts of the host nation and the big five were brand new on the night of the final. There was no familiarity, no connection, no prior exposure. We couldn’t sing along, we didn’t know the tune.

Since the rule allowing the big five came into play 18 years ago, only Germany has won the contest (in 2010), and all but Italy have finished last at least once. Maybe in the UK we aren’t buying an advantage after all. More likely, we are just buying an opportunity to avoid the embarrassment of not making the final. That’s not exactly a high bar!

How can you use the exposure effect?

• It’s about consistency. The same style, same brand, same colour scheme and visual style across all your publications.

• If you can, have the same staff providing face to face services to customers.

• Use consistent language and signage.

• Provide consistent and high quality training to your teams so that everyone is aligned with the brand message.

• Use consistent layout of physical space.

• Show your work early. Don't wait for the big reveal to introduce your products to customers (or colleagues) for the first time. Share early drafts and talk about what you are doing while you make it.

It all adds up so that customers feel they are somewhere familiar, knowing what to expect and feeling more positive about your products or service.

Note of Caution: Do it in a human, subtle way. Don’t overwork it. Remember when Conservative party overused the “strong and stable” campaign slogan at the 2017 general election, to the point their MPs looked embarrassed to have to repeat it. Enough said.