You Can’t Win If You Don’t Turn Up

By Dan Monheit, originally shared by Inside Retail 02.02.21

Behavioural Science expert Dan Monheit, co-founder and head of strategy at award-winning creative agency Hardhat, says that for brands to be first and foremost in consumers’ consciousness, they need to tap into the Mere Exposure Effect.

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As we pack away the dumpster fire of a year that was 2020, brands are setting their sights on 2021 with an invigorated gusto. Chief Marketing Officers will be eagerly locking in campaigns to roll out across big calendar events such as Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, Easter, Mother’s Day & Father’s Day, Halloween, all the way to Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Christmas.

While it’s good to feel busy, hitching your brand’s comms to a string of annual ‘tentpole’ events is one of the most boring ways to waste a budget I can imagine. Of course, dialling up your media spend when every other brand in the world is dialling up theirs is one well-worn issue. The bigger, less obvious one is that we tend to expect far too much from exciting, flashy one-offs, while expecting far too little from consistent (and comparatively boring), always-on-messaging.

This comes down to a concept from Behavioural Science known as the Mere Exposure Effect (MEE). Introduced by the Polish-born, American psychologist Robert Zajonc in 1968, MEE refers to our tendency to prefer things, simply because those things are familiar to us. Studies have shown that the ‘things’ we can build preference for knows no bounds. Repeated exposure is enough for us (and many of our animal kingdom counterparts) to build affinity towards specific words, sounds, shapes, pictures, faces, pictures of faces, Chinese characters and more.

The word ‘mere’ is critical in understanding the mechanics of the Mere Exposure Effect. We don’t need to interact, engage, like, share or transact for it to work its magic. In fact, in most cases, we hardly even need to notice. The ‘mere’ repeated exposure of a stimulus is enough to have an impact. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that we’d be wired to favour the familiar. Objects that we see over and over again tend to be classified as ‘safe’, as well as quicker and easier for our brains to comprehend.

While today, ‘new’ rarely means ‘dangerous’, many of our decisions are still made from this perspective. In a marketing context, the more times a person is exposed to a brand, the more likely they are to recognise it and consider it safe — two of the most important precursors for most purchases

Marketers looking to take full advantage of the MEE need to recognise the critical importance of brand codes — the small collection of distinctive assets that are undeniably theirs. Brand codes are a hallmark of almost every successful brand and can include anything from colours and shapes (think Tiffany’s Blue or Nike’s Swoosh), to words, sounds and fonts (Mastercard’s ‘Priceless’, Intel’s chimes or Coca Cola’s cursive script).Brand codes make it quicker and easier for people to associate your comms with your brand. If it’s not obvious what people are being ‘merely exposed’ to, it’s much harder for the mere exposure ‘effect’ to kick in. Ensuring brand codes appear early, front and centre, is a surefire way to put the MEE to work.

Finally, it’s worth recognising that in 2021 ‘just turning up’ can do far more than build preference for a purchase one day in the future. With more commerce than ever happening online, ‘just turning up’ can land you major market share.

In 2020, Google released their groundbreaking ‘Messy Middle’ paper, the culmination of a multi-year, global research initiative that explored how behavioural biases impact our purchase decisions. What the Google data demonstrated was the tremendous impact of presence alone.

Researchers asked ‘in market’ shoppers for their first and second favourite brand across dozens of categories. They then ran purchasing simulation, where these same shoppers were asked to choose between the two brands. Surprisingly, the mere presence of the second choice brand was enough to steal more than 30% of choices away from the favourite.

When the same experiment was run with completely fictitious brands put up against previously declared favourites, the results were surprisingly similar. While rationally, this makes no sense at all, we know that just because chocolate is our favourite ice cream flavour, it doesn’t mean we’ll pick it every single time.

Just turning up at the moment of truth is enough to give most brands — fictitious or otherwise — a fighting chance.

So, while the temptation of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Pancake Day and ‘Talk Like a Pirate’ Day (y’arr, it’s real) might be hard to resist, the message, the science and the lesson is clear; Your brand messaging isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for every day of the year.

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