The Familiarity Heuristic

[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
The familiarity heuristic posits that we prefer things we are familiar with over things that are novel/new. This may result from two key aspects of human development. First, in ancient societies and even primate communities most individuals would experience the same natural stimuli on a daily basis. For example, red berries may have always been safe, while black berries may have been dangerous. Similarly, it was likely easier to predict the behaviour of your ingroup community members, compared to non-familiar outgroup individuals. Familiar things were simply safer than novel/new things. And thus, a preference for the familiar may have aided with survival in precarious situations. This can be seen in a study by Litt et al. (2011) which demonstrated that under time pressure, individuals often chose inefficient familiar options over more efficient novel options when given a choice as to which task to complete. In other words, even when it might harm us, we often default to the familiar. Secondly, some researchers have argued that familiarity is cognitively efficient, meaning that our brain processes familiar stimuli quicker than non-familiar stimuli. When faced with a decision, we need to use up cognitive resources to weigh alternatives. And the familiarity heuristic may allow us to skip this step and efficiently choose an outcome. This enhanced processing speed can be seen in a study by Manahova et al. (2020) which demonstrated that familiarity with distractor stimuli led to truncated neural activity in the visual system, improving performance on a novel target stimuli categorization task, when compared to the same task with non-familiar distractors. Similarly, a study by Zhang (2020) using event-related potentials suggests different cognitive processes occur for different levels of brand awareness.

Applying The Familiarity Heuristic to Marketing

Having a memorable brand is key to taking advantage of the familiarity heuristic. This can be accomplished through your brand name, a logo, unique copy associated with your brand (like Nike’s “Just Do It”), or a unique color scheme for your industry (like Lemonade insurance’s use of pink). The mere exposure effect can be leveraged to create familiarity for a new brand. Or alternatively, a brand identity can be constructed around existing familiar stimuli. For example, when selling food, you can label it as “classic” or “traditional” to invoke an assumption of familiarity. Similarly, you might evoke a country’s flag in brand/marketing materials to enhance trust through familiarity with nationality or culture. Further, you might associate your brand with existing brands that are familiar to others, such as when clothing stores like Uniqlo do collaborations with popular media brands like Hello Kitty or Pokémon.

Practical Examples of The Familiarity Heuristic

The Importance of Familiarity in Website UI/UX Design

Creating a familiar user experience is crucial to increasing brand preference and conversion. When individuals visit your website, they have a number of expectations based on their use of websites in the past. For example, most people expect page navigation to be at the top of the website, and would be confused if it was placed only in the footer (an issue we have had to fix on multiple client’s websites in the past). As a result of drag-and-drop systems overtaking web development over the past decade, most individuals have specific expectations of how content should be laid out on a website. Thus it’s important to consider visitor expectations, and adapt your website to create a generally familiar user experience that will be easy to navigate and understand.

Building Familiarity through Social Media and Email

Sometimes the easiest way to generate familiarity is to prime people with familiarity-oriented content. For example, you might describe yourself as a “trusted brand” or tell customers about your legacy through anniversary celebrations. Even if a customer isn’t familiar with your brand, a social media post or email describing your ten year anniversary can create a false sense of familiarity. Similarly, you can accomplish this through words like “again.” For example “join us again for our Halloween sale.” Even if a customer has never heard of your brand, or doesn’t remember interacting with your brand in the past, the word again suggests that they may have heard of this sale before, and thus encodes a sense of cognitive familiarity. The use of influencers on social media also helps create familiarity as they blur the divide between an influencer promoting your brand, and your actual brand. Individuals who support the influencer may subconsciously convince themselves of existing familiarity with your brand to align their preferences with the influencer’s preferences, and/or may experience enhanced preference for the brand due to the familiarity of the influencer promoting it.

Personalizing Copy to Enhance Familiarity

Imagine a bookstore described to you as “Toronto’s favourite bookstore” compared to one described as “Your favourite bookstore.” Using the word “your” generates an innate sense of familiarity as it creates a personal connection between you and the business/brand. Further, it reminds you that you have been to the bookstore in the past, and essentially tells you that the store is familiar. A similar technique can be used to enhance familiarity of online platforms, games, or apps, by allowing users to create an account and/or customize their UX/UI. Once an account is created, they can be reminded that they have an account with the brand, which indicates familiarity even years later if the user has forgotten the brand. It's always a good idea to consider how you can create a personal connection between users and your brand, as it helps retain customers, and re-attract customers in the future (especially if the time lag between purchases is expected to be long).

Research Example of The Familiarity Heuristics

Priming Familiarity to Influence Brand Choice

Coates et al. (2006) ran an experiment where they used a coupon-rating task to force participants to examine and process a set of fictitious brands, thus priming them for familiarity. Following this they had participants perform a filler task, and then asked them to rank lists of brands in order of which they would prefer to buy. Only some of these brands presented for ranking had previously been seen, while others were novel. In line with the familiarity heuristic, participants were more likely to choose a familiar brand as their first-place preference than an unfamiliar brand. It is however important to recognize the sample size was relatively small for this study (under 50). However, various other studies have demonstrated similar findings (Khurram et al., 2018; Thoma & Williams, 2013), and one recent study has suggested that simply pairing familiar music with a brand increased choice for said brand by 6% compared to brands paired with novel music (Anglada-Tort et al., 2022).

Works Cited

Anglada-Tort, M., Schofield, K., Trahan, T., & Müllensiefen, D. (2022). I’ve heard that brand before: The role of music recognition on consumer choice. International Journal of Advertising, 41(8), 1567-1587.

Coates, S. L., Butler, L. T., Berry, D. C. (2006). Implicit memory and consumer choice: The mediating role of brand familiarity. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20(8), 1101-1116.

Khurram, M., Qadeer, F., & Sheeraz, M. (2018). The role of brand recall, brand recognition and price consciousness in understanding actual purchase. Journal of Research in Social Sciences, 6(2), 219-241.

Litt, A., Reich, T., Maymin, S., & Shiv, B. (2011). Pressure and perverse flights to familiarity. Psychological Science, 22(4), 523–531.

Manahova, M. E., Spaak, E. & de Lange, F. P. (2020). Familiarity increases processing speed in the visual system. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 32(4), 722-733.

Thoma, V., & Williams, A. (2013). The devil you know: The effect of brand recognition and product ratings on consumer choice. Judgment and Decision Making, 8(1), 34-44.

Zhang, X. (2020). The influences of brand awareness on consumers’ cognitive process: An event-related potentials study. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 14.

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