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Familiarity breeds affection

Familiarity breeds affection

11 February 2015 Written by By Yasushi Kusume Innovation and Creative Manager – IKEA

Yasushi Kusume has headed up design and branding for household names like Philips and Electrolux. He has also co-written Brand Romance, a guide to building a loved brand. Here he talks about how best to breed affection through familiarity of your brand.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why cover songs are so popular? Why do we like to listen to new versions, by different artists, of songs we already know and like? What’s the attraction? Understanding the answers to these questions could help your brand make a greater impact in the marketplace.

Teenage kicks

In their book Welcome to your brain, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang observed that: “The brain has reached 90 percent of its adult size by the age of six. During the last 10 percent of growth, a lot is going on.” They note that while all the connections within the brain form rapidly, those in different areas develop at different speeds. The last to be formed occur in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain linked to moral reasoning and planning for the future. Those favouring novelty and risk-taking form early, but then begin to reverse by late adolescence. This is also the time when dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, is particularly sensitive and vulnerable to stress.

What does this have to do with music and cover versions? I’ll explain. It’s not difficult to find any number of research articles and studies describing how music helps people, in particular, noting the effect that rhythm has on the emotions of listeners. This is especially relevant to adolescents, since they are at an age when the final ten percent of their brains is in its last stages of development. With dopamine levels being so sensitive, music helps them to reduce, and recover from, many of the stresses they are undergoing. This is one of the reasons why nearly all teenagers are obsessed with music. Another is that, with the risk-taking areas of the brain developing as strongly as they do at that age, they are naturally attracted to cutting-edge composers and performers.

So when Sony introduced the first Walkman in 1979, I remember thinking it was a product invented solely for me. The Walkman offered my teenage self 24/7 access to music, which was why I always carried extra batteries - and as many cassettes as I could.

Compared to those of 35 years ago, today’s technologies, products and services offering access to music are all so well advanced that I have unparalleled listening opportunities. Yet despite this I don’t devote the time I used to, as an adolescent, in exploring new musicians, songs and styles of music. My music collection has not kept pace with my increased cash flow and wider access. As I’ve grown older, and my brain has completed its development, I’m no longer so interested in novelty.

Those of you at the same age as me will probably recognise what I'm describing. And my question to you is: don’t you feel good listening to music you’re familiar with from your teenage years? If you’re from the same generation as me, don’t you believe that Led Zeppelin were the kings of rock and that everything that's followed them has been nothing more than a less impressive copy? Don’t you believe that the best music is the music you loved when you were a teenager?

If this is so then, by way of explanation, let me share with you some thoughts about people’s behaviours and preferences - and how they often make decisions and choices.

Automatic choices

In their article Illusions of immediate memory, Jacoby, Whittlesea and Girard write that: “The experience of familiarity has a simple but powerful quality of ‘pastness’ that seems to indicate that it is a direct reflection of prior experience.” They continue: “It is thus plausible that familiarity is simply a conscious feeling that accompanies retrieval of memory for past experience.” And in the report Becoming famous overnight, co-authored by Jacoby and two others, the writers observed that: “a person is not aware of a particular prior experience as being the source of effects on performance.”

In their Illusions of immediate memory study, Jacoby and his colleagues set out to discover whether non-celebrity names presented to test subjects one day could then be mistakenly judged as those of celebrities 24 hours later. The thinking behind the test was this: Although none of us carry around a file of information about non-celebrity names, when we re-encounter the same names at a later date, we are inclined to think that they may belong a ‘famous’ person simply because they sound familiar.  We experience a greater cognitive ease when we encounter something that makes recognition ‘easier’. Because we have heard of it, or seen it, before it feels familiar and therefore ‘safer’. In short, if we are ‘primed’ to recognise something, then when we encounter it again we automatically feel ‘good’ about it.

It’s at this point, I hope, that you’re beginning to see an answer to the question that began this article. If you already recognise a tune, then any new version of it arrives with a ‘built-in’ likeability factor. You're predisposed to like it the moment you hear it.

Repetition = familiarity = safety

In his article Attitudinal effects of mere exposure, Robert B. Zajonc wrote that repetition induces cognitive ease and a comforting feeling of familiarity. “Mere repeated exposure of the individual to a stimulus object”, he said, “enhances his attitude toward it.” In other words, the repetition of something creates a comforting feeling of familiarity within us. It's a phenomenon the advertising industry has long known about and used it to its advantage.

If you’re wondering what repetition has to do with music, I would ask whether you have ever had the following experience: You're in a café and you hear a melody you recognise from your youth. You might have liked it when you were young - you might not. But because your exposure to music at that time was so frequent, you heard it a lot. Now, years later in the café, listening to different musicians playing that familiar melody with a different arrangement, I would be willing to bet that this music triggers a reaction in you far greater than does a tune you've never heard before.

It’s this, I believe, that explains why cover versions of past popular songs can be such good business. The new versions trigger a positive response in listeners based on something they heard repeatedly when young. This produces a sense of cognitive ease and automatically calls up many of the emotions linked to their youth. They feel comfortable because the music sounds so familiar. To take just one example, it explains why there are currently so many jazz versions of popular music from the 1970s on the market.

Golden oldies

But what about industries other than music? Are there any that also apply the approach I’ve described above? For me, the answer is “yes.” What follows are some reflections on two different types of product, and the way they use their physical appearance like a melody line of a golden oldie.

Classic cars

Throughout the years, Porsche has maintained its identity with the use of an iconic side view silhouette for its flagship 911 car. Although the actual contours of the design have changed over time (if you visit the Porsche museum in Stuttgart, you will find a display of all the changes in the design of the 911 section lines), the company has managed to retain its overall image and familiarity. I'm sure many car lovers remember the 911 from their youth and have hankered for one ever since then.

But Porsche is not the only car company to recognise the value of a cherished design. In recent years, two other well-known manufacturers have re-introduced classic forms. In 2001, BMW brought back the Mini brand with a range of cars modelled on the original 1960s design. The success of this move then prompted them to expand their range. In 2007, Fiat rolled out its well known Fiat 500 (as the Nuovo 500), fifty years after the first version appeared. The company managed to produce a new look without losing sight of the original design, one still enormously popular with car enthusiasts around the world. It’s resulted in financial success for Fiat, together with revitalised brand equity in the auto market.

In all three cases - 911, Mini and Fiat 500 - the manufacturers have ensured cognitive ease by applying a recognisable design - one seen repeatedly by millions of people in the past and therefore easily remembered - to a new product. The contour, composition and form of all three cars thus provoke an emotional response based on the vehicles’ heritage, a response that has had undoubted positive results for both the brand and the product equity.

Apple, Braun and ten principles

Recently, Apple announced the release of its new iPhone, as well its first smart watch. At the same time, the company halted production of an iconic design: the iPod Classic. In an article for CNN, Goodbye, iPod classic, Doug Gross noted that: “On social media, users were reacting with real emotion, bidding farewell to a ‘good buddy’ and ‘old friend’. To some, it was perhaps a bit of nostalgia, losing the only remaining iPod that bears a resemblance to the original and other early models.”

If you’re an Apple fan, you no doubt remember the very first iPod, with its square shaped screen and circular control dial. It was such an effective design that it was retained for later, newer releases. But perhaps only designers recognised that this combination of square and circle was previously used by Braun’s 1958 T3 pocket radio. It's no secret that Jonathan Ive, the design leader at Apple, greatly respected Dieter Rams - the leading designer at Braun. In his 2013 article for Forbes, Jony Ives (no longer so) secret design weapon, Anthony Wing Kosner wrote that: “Ive has widely praised Rams for his designs that are ‘bold, pure, perfectly-proportioned, coherent and effortless’. Rams is also a master of intuitive design.”

It's obvious that the Apple design team both fully respect, and have been influenced by, the Braun design approach. A quick Google search for ‘Apple Braun’ will show several examples of Apple products with a close resemblance to those from Braun – among them the Powermac G5 and the Braun T1000 radio, the Apple iMac and the Braun LE1 speaker.

The Braun approach was manifested in Dieter Rams’ Ten principles for good design. These principles have been internationally recognised and, over the years, have proven to be a formula not just for good design, but also for the successful positioning of brands wanting to compete in the market with Apple. Japanese retailer Muji, for example, offers a brand value, propositions and design that strongly reflect the ideas put forward by Rams.

The point I would like to make is this: over the years you will have seen many examples of product design by many brands that have successfully applied Rams’ Ten Principles. This has made the actual design approach familiar to you, which is why it resonates emotionally with you whenever you encounter products using it. Because they are so well established, Rams’ principles are automatically perceived as a good design. They predispose you to trust them when you see them.

The two approaches I’ve described above are valid ways of increasing cognitive ease. They are also all tried, tested and well-known. The question I would now like to ask is whether there exists a new approach we can bring to improving usability. It may come as no surprise that, in considering this, I once more refer to Apple.

A usability milestone

Apple’s iPhone was recognised almost instantly as a milestone in the field of intuitive usability, using as it did finger movements to arrange and select icons on a screen - being instantly familiar to everyone who picked it up.

This combination of touch screen and gesture control was a complete departure from the previous paradigm of actual physical buttons and ‘one gesture’ press. The old paradigm had been in use since the 1950s, most notably in TV and later in VCR remote controls.  Although many brands and designers tried to improve the usability of these remotes - for example, by grouping the most frequently used buttons on the front and concealing the least used on the rear or under a flap - this did not really solve the root cause of the user's problems. There were simply too many buttons and, as the functions they controlled increased - due to improvements in the technology - the remotes grew in size to contain them all. Remote controls became the icon of ‘bad usability’ for many, many years.

The iPhone showed that the application of physical gestures (such as flipping through the pages of a book with one’s finger) are universal. They enable a user interface that's intuitive across almost all cultures, genders and generations. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most people today can begin using a smart phone without needing to read any instructions at all - even though the functions it offers are far more complex than the VCRs of a generation ago.

The key to this success? Using gestures that are familiar to people.

Leveraging familiarity

I believe there are many other ways of leveraging what I might call the ‘familiarity factor.’ And as I hope you can see from the examples I've used in this article, it’s possible to apply it at both the brand and proposition level. No matter what approach your brand or proposition takes, or how complex your offer, the key to success lies in understanding what your audiences are familiar with.

This takes work, of course. It means carefully observing and monitoring the subtle - and rapid - changes in taste of different generations in different cultures. It calls for a detailed understanding of people and what they feel familiar with. But it’s essential work. Because it’s the brands that succeed in understanding their users who will be the only ones capable of reaping the full benefits of familiarity.


  • Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, Welcome to your brain, Rider, April 2008
  • Doug Gross, Goodbye, iPod classic, CNN, September 2014
  • Larry L. Jacoby, Colleen Kelley, Judith Brown and Jennifer Jasechko, Becoming famous overnight, The American Psychological Association, Inc., 1989
  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, fast and slow, Penguin, 2011
  • Anthony Wing Kosner, Jony Ives (no longer so) secret design weapon, Forbes, November 2013
  • Bruce W. A. Whittlesea, Larry L. Jacoby and Krista Girard, Illusions of immediate memory, Journal of Memory and Language, 1990
  • Robert B. Zajonc, Attitudinal effects of mere exposure, The American Psychological Association, Inc., 1968

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