Persuading customers: The new versus the familiar
Remember those exercise ball office chairs that made a splash in the late 2000s as the new, healthy way to sit? You'd have a coworker get one and then evangelize the benefits to anyone who would listen, a few more people would buy them, and a few months later, everyone was back to their regular chair.
There is a great scene from The Office when Dwight gets an exercise ball chair. It's worth the 65 seconds to watch.
The exercise ball chair was easy to try, and people seemed to love them (at least that's what they told you…repeatedly), but they never took off. The reason is the acronym MAYA.
MAYA comes from the design philosophy of Raymond Loewy, one of the most significant industrial designers of the 20th century. Loewy is famous for designing the Coke bottle, Exxon Mobile and Shell's logos, the look and branding of Air Force One, and a host of other products. What drove Loewy's design was a simple insight. As humans, we have a constant tension between two competing interests. The first is a desire for the familiar, the things we understand and make us feel safe. However, we are also drawn to another desire, the need for the new, the novel, the exciting. The trick to a great design is balancing the familiar and the surprising.
MAYA stands for "most advanced, yet acceptable," and it was the guiding principle that helped Loewy make his iconic designs. When you try to sell something surprising or new, you want to make it feel familiar. When you want to sell something familiar to your customer, you need to think of how to make it feel surprising or new.
The key was to understand what your customers wanted and then create framing to match their feelings. If you are giving somebody something new, it can't be very different from what they are familiar with. This was the problem with the exercise ball chair – it was too surprising, too unique. Contrast the exercise ball with the Aeron chair, popular in the same decade. Instead of having a solid back on the chair, it was mesh and had a bunch of different adjustments for your lumbar. It was the familiar office chair but felt new.
What drives this need for us to feel safe with the familiar?
There's a concept in psychology called the mere-exposure effect, and this phenomenon shows us that the more times you see something more normal it becomes. For example, you show up at the same work function or conference with the same group of people, and over time people will feel like they know you even if you've never actually spoken. Or another example of the mere-exposure effect is suggesting to somebody in 2014 or even 2015 that Donald Trump would be President. Over time, the repeated exposure to a new idea creates the familiarity to accept the idea.
What if you want to create familiarity, but most of your products are new and surprising?
The founders of Trader Joe's, Joe Coulombe, faced this problem when expanding from their first few stores. He wanted customers who felt comfortable buying new foods they had never seen before. So Joe began the Fearless Flyer, a quirky advertising circular. He wrote about the unique foods, cheese, wine, bread, and other items they had at Trader Joe's. Joe took time in each issue to tell the back story, the history, and what made the food item unique. The goal was simple, have customers walk into the store and see the foods they had never tried but had read about it so they felt familiar and safe enough to buy. The Fearless Flyer became their primary marketing tool for growing Trader Joe's because it followed the MAYA principle and made their food items the most advanced yet acceptable to the customer.
Think about what MAYA (most advanced yet acceptable) means for what you sell. Are you making the familiar seem surprising or novel for current customers? Are you making the new feel familiar to your new customers?
Next week we will dive into how MAYA affects how you pitch your existing customers and donors and how that is different from new customers and donors.
Joe Coulombe, Becoming Trader Joe: How I Did Business My Way and Still Beat the Big Guys, Harper Collins 2021
Derek Thompson, The Four-letter Code to Selling Just About Anything. What makes things cool? The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2017
Derek Thompson, Hit Maker: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Penguin Press, 2017
If you are interested in reading more I’d recommend Thompson’s article and not the full book.