Harvard Business Review

Entice Customers With What They Already Know


Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 8, 2011 10:20 AM

People like familiarity. Nobody likes to be unsure how to act in a situation. For example, traveling to a new country may be exciting, but it is also stressful. It’s uncertain whether the knowledge you have will be sufficient to help you get by.

But vacationing is an active decision, so you look forward to the adventure of ambiguity. When it comes to your company, however, your customers shouldn’t feel like they’re in a foreign country. Instead, help customers figure out how to interact with you using what they already know.

When faced with any situation, people usually determine which knowledge to use based its similarity to previous experiences. The easiest form of similarity that people use is literal similarity. This happens when a new situation resembles one you have encountered before, which signals deeper commonalities between each case.

Consider fast food restaurants. They all look alike, more or less. Starting in the late 1950s with the rise of McDonalds, these restaurants have developed a common structure in which people stand on line, look at a menu above the cash registers, place an order, bring their food to a table, and eat. Whether the restaurant sells burgers, tacos, or fried chicken, each has a similar look-and-feel.

Literal similarity is ideal, because customers can easily recognize what they are supposed to do. If you want to help customers understand how to navigate your business, the best way is to make your products, websites, and stores bear some perceptible similarities to things people have encountered before. When Apple first introduced the desktop operating system to the public with the Macintosh, they strictly enforced the look-and-feel of programs to ensure that users would feel comfortable with each new program. Likewise, there is a convergent evolution in the design of consumer products like blenders. The wall of blenders at a big box retailer consists of a variety of products that all look basically the same, and that helps consumers feel comfortable with new products.

It is important to make sure that these easily available similarities also signal deeper similarities. Otherwise, you have mere appearance—the type of similarity where two situations are only similar on the surface. People can be fooled by mere appearance into using the wrong knowledge to understand a situation.

Take Scent Stories, a short-lived product by Procter & Gamble. Consumers inserted a disc into a device and pressed a button, and it gave a series of pleasing scents over a 30-minute period. However, the discs looked like CDs, and the device was designed to look like a CD-player. Consequently, people often confused the product with a CD, and were confused when it did not play music. More generally, be aware of the expectations you set for customers when creating similarities.

There are times of course, when you are doing something quite novel. There may not be anything in your customers’ experience that is similar enough to your product on the surface to help them understand it more deeply. In this case, you have to use the power of analogy. Analogies are cases where two situations function in the same way, despite looking different on the surface.

Before digital cameras were ubiquitous, they had to be explained. The natural tendency was to think about digital cameras as if they were like traditional film-based cameras. However, people making this comparison were confused by the process of getting images developed. It was easier to explain digital cameras by comparing them to scanners, which were more familiar at the time. That analogy gave people insight into the way users could upload images to a computer and process them.

People are good at understanding analogies once they are presented. You may never have considered the similarities between water and electricity—but if I say that the flow of electricity through a wire is like the flow of water through a hose, you can use your knowledge from one arena to think about the other.

The difficulty is that people are rarely reminded of good analogies on their own. If you are trying to introduce a product or service to customers, don’t expect them to find their own analogies. Instead, suggest the right analogy in your communications with them.

By leveraging the power of literal similarity and analogy and avoiding the trap of mere appearance, you can do an effective job of helping customers to treat your company like a familiar country.

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Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently editor of the journal Cognitive Science, and consults regularly through his company Maximizing Mind. Follow him on twitter @abmarkman.

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