What’s the difference between a breakthrough and a hit? An audience.
When it comes to introducing an innovative product or brand, sheer brilliance is not enough. As a matter of fact, too much brilliance might just blind your consumer. As Derek Thompson astutely explains in his new book, Hit Makers , people tend to like what they already like. For the public to latch on, your genius needs a dash of familiarity.
Iconic industrial designer and modernist tastemaker, Raymond Loewy called this phenomenon “MAYA”: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. He theorized that “The consumer is influenced in his choice of styling by two opposing factors: (a) attraction to the new and (b) resistance to the unfamiliar.”
Or as Thompson distills it: “To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”
Loewy’s sleek lines transformed the aesthetic of mid-century America. His credits include Sears Coldspot refrigerators, Lucky Strike packaging, the modern locomotive, Studebaker’s Starlight Coupe and Air Force One. Loewy’s work blazed a dramatic path toward the future – and Americans excitedly followed him. Why did America embrace Loewy’s changes? For all of his high-minded design, Loewy also made sure every detail was first and foremost consumer-minded.
Think of familiarity as “fluency.” If the consumer understands where you’re coming from, they can become part of the dialogue and discovery – which forges a powerful connection. As Thompson explains, “In the psychology of aesthetics, there is a name for the moment between the anxiety of confronting something new and the satisfying click of understanding it. It is called an ‘aesthetic aha.’”
Fluency clues can come in the form of imagery, language, emotions or even melody. These contextual or structural hints allow the reader/viewer/listener to connect the dots for themselves and create a more personal appreciation for your message.
No matter the product or demographic, you can always connect to your customer’s most familiar interest: themselves. As Thompson points out, “Products change and fashions rise and fall. But the architecture of the human mind is ancient, and the most basic of human needs – to belong, to escape, to aspire, to understand, to be understood – are eternal.”
Another crucial aspect of creating fluency is exposure. The more people see something, the more they grow to like it – or at least fear it less. Researchers suppose this may tap into a deep-rooted survival mechanism from primal days gone by: “If you recognize an animal or plant, then it hasn’t killed you yet.” How’s that for brand equity?
Proper distribution and broadcast builds awareness, familiarity and, hopefully, adoration. In today’s highly niched culture, it’s easier than ever – and more imperative – to build your brand with the right people. Leverage social media marketing and influencers to amplify your reach.
Recently, Ramey helped launch Hestan NanoBond cookware. This is actually some pretty high-tech stuff. Made from molecular titanium, it introduces the first innovation to stainless cookware in over 100 years. There’s plenty of science behind NanoBond. But we realized that when you get down to it, people just want to cook better (and have an easier time cleaning up afterward). So our marketing strategy focused on the delights of cooking with such exceptional cookware. The science became a proof point. We gave the breakthrough innovation a nod, but quickly turned the corner to searing and sautéing like a pro. Online videos demonstrate the details with aspirational recipes. Partnerships with Williams Sonoma, Bon Appetit and WIRED broadcast the breakthrough, while chef influencers added credible context. First week sales were out of the park. Of course, it also helps that NanoBond is quite literally brilliant. Much like Loewy’s Studebaker coupe, it looks exciting just sitting there gleaming on your kitchen counter.
Which brings me to the final point – you still have to start with a good idea. As Thompson warns, “Distribution is a strategy to make a good product popular, but it’s not a reliable way to make a bad product seem good.” There may be a sucker born every minute, but it doesn’t take long to develop a fluency for garbage.
Loewy’s story and his MAYA theory are well worth a few more minutes of your time. Thompson offers an abridged version in this Atlantic article.
Wes Williams, VP/Chief Creative Director