The Concept of Familiarity

Mere Exposure Effect in Marketing

Today, I want to try and settle this debate that has been going on since the beginning of time. 

Which one is better? Samsung or Apple?

Do you already have an answer?

Do you think Samsung is better? Are you saying that we should ignore that Apple holds the higher ground for design and integration? Apple is so much more focused than Samsung. Even as a company, Apple is more profitable. 

Or wait, did you think Apple is better? In which case can we ignore the price range and the affordability that Samsung comes with? More importantly, Samsung has universal chargers, unlike Apple who seem to hate chargers at this point. 

Personally, I like Samsung better since I have always used Samsung phones. However, my entire family, who have always used iPhones, will pick Apple over anything else.  

I, unfortunately, can only present to you my opinion. I am not qualified enough to give a verdict in this case. However, I am qualified enough to point out how most of our opinion or preference is solely based on how familiar we are with either Apple or Samsung. I have never really met an Apple user advocating for Samsung and vice versa. What do you think? 

Similar to our preference in the Apple-Samsung case, in general as well, we tend to develop preferences for things simply because we are familiar with them. This tendency is known as the mere exposure effect. Think about it like this: if you have to choose between picking a book you have read about before and are familiar with or a completely unheard of, random book, which one would you pick? Even when we go out to eat, most of us stick to dishes that we are already familiar with or at least dishes with familiar ingredients in them. 

Although sticking to something you are familiar with sounds like a smart thing to do, it might not always be a great idea. For example, the world is full of books you haven’t picked up yet only because you are not familiar with them! Also, ideally, our decisions should be based on a logical approach and not on our familiarity or lack thereof. Moreover, sticking with what we know limits our exposure to new things, ideas, and viewpoints.

Even when you think about the repercussions of this effect on the bigger picture, it’s not very optimistic. For example, imagine companies, governments and other prominent organisations avoiding new technology or systems because they are unfamiliar with them. Similarly, schools and other academic institutions giving in to this effect can have devastating consequences. 

The mere exposure effect also helps maintain social norms. Because we are constantly exposed to all the norms in our society, we easily adopt them in our day to day lives. But, sadly, the same thing applies to stereotypes and prejudices as well. Although stereotypes and prejudice come with a bag full of negative consequences, they help us make sense of the world and make its interpretation easier. This is also one of the major reasons why we give in to the mere exposure effect. As a result, we are better able to understand and interpret things we have already seen before. For example, think about how we find it easier to understand complicated movies when we watch them again. 

Another primary reason why we give in to this effect is that it reduces uncertainty. We are evolutionarily programmed to avoid new things or to be careful around them. Familiarity also invokes the feeling of safety. For example, when do you feel safer, when you are driving in a car with a friend or in a shared cab with a stranger? 

Because of such characteristics of familiarity, the mere exposure effect is famous in the world of advertisement and marketing. The more people are familiar with your brand, the more assured they feel about it. But, let me remind you, familiarity doesn’t always mean that the customer has used your product; it might just mean that they have seen your ads or are familiar with how your product works because they have seen other people use it. 

Here are a few things you can do to use the concept of familiarity to your advantage - 

  1. Repeated Exposure - While brief single exposure to an ad is enough to get someone to view it more favourably, studies reveal that repeated exposures are even more effective. While this repeated exposure effect finds an obvious application in online retargeting efforts, marketers can keep it in mind as they create integrated campaigns across multiple channels using consistent visuals and messaging. Remember, every impression, no matter how fleeting, counts!

  1. Online ads work even when people don’t click on them - It’s natural to doubt the impact of marketing activities whose primary aim is to generate brand awareness. After all, you can’t measure that as easily as clicks or other performance metrics. But what the mere exposure effect suggests is that marketers might be placing too much emphasis on click-through rates.

  1. There is no such thing as overdoing it - An adage says that familiarity breeds contempt. But we now have evidence that this is not true. The mere exposure effect is excellent evidence of that. Many studies suggest that consumers tend to have a relatively high level of tolerance for repeated exposure to ads. So if you are worried about overexposure — you needn’t be. (Pro tip - Don’t be scared of overdoing it but please be scared of boring your customers. Be creative!)

  1. Familiarity shouldn’t be your main lead - The effects of mere exposure are subtle. It can’t possibly be your main idea. Of course, it will work wonders in the supporting cast, but dumping all the marketing responsibilities on familiarity will only bring in flops. Instead, have other robust strategies, and let your exposure effect strategies support your main lead. 

While mere exposure to one brand won’t necessarily peel consumers away from the industry leader they’ve been buying from for years, it can help the brand separate itself from the pack. And over several years, on a global scale, those tiebreakers can add up.

Some quick takeaways - 

  • We tend to develop preferences for things simply because we are familiar with them. This tendency is known as the mere exposure effect.

  • Our decisions should be based on a logical approach and not on our familiarity or lack thereof. 

  • The mere exposure effect also helps maintain social norms, stereotypes and prejudices. 

  • Strategies can be formed around the concept of mere exposure effect to improve the effectiveness of ads.