Instinct as enemy: How to sell-in the new and unfamiliar

Your instinct can be your enemy.

It's another paradox of the human condition. Although our instincts have mostly served us well, sometimes following an instinct is a mistake.

Consider our instinct to be wary of things unfamiliar.

Imagine, while strolling through the woods, that you come upon a bush covered with little red berries. If you've never seen these berries before, you don't know if they are safe or poisonous. Your instinct says, "don't eat." You live another day, thanks to your cautious, risk-averse nature.

But this very same instinct, the fear of the unknown, makes the branding process intrinsically difficult. That's because branding requires creating and saying something different than others. Differentiation is, after all, the very essence of branding.

So when a truly differentiated strategy or name or logo is first presented to clients, typically their instinctive reaction is to recoil, to reject the unfamiliar.

Although I've seen this phenomenon in client meetings and consumer research, it was this impassioned article that first exposed me to 'The Zajonc Effect.'
Psychologist Robert Zajonc from Stanford University has found that humans don’t initially like rare or unfamiliar things. And the more we see the same thing, the more we like it.
The Zajonc Effect, known as the 'exposure effect' to psychologists, turns a proverb on its head: Familiarity does not breed contempt; to the contrary, it breeds comfort.

The article's author, Bruce Tait, articulates clearly the brander's paradox:
“If brands are to succeed they need to be based on differentiated, unfamiliar brand strategies. Unfortunately, these are the exact same kind of ideas that people initially dislike.”
Tait lays the blame for the widespread, systemic loss of brand differentiation at the feet of 'marketing science,' the consumer testing, quantification, and rigid processes that fledgling ideas are commonly subjected to. Marketing science, in Tait's view, alleviates employees' fear of failure and gives them confidence. But their false prophet of hard numbers does a poor job divining what will actually succeed in the real world.
Quantitative testing of alternative positioning ideas will likely systematically kill the more original ideas, and people will prefer the ones that are closest to what they already know.
Seinfeld, Sony Walkman, Absolut vodka and, as cited by Malcom Gladwell in Blink, the Aeron chair, performed dismally in market research precisely because they were unlike anything else. But these all turned out to be quite successful after launch in the real world.

Consumers' negativity to unfamiliar things is inscribed in qualitative and quantitative research executive summaries that, in striving for clarity and brevity, magnify differences and minimize complexities. Even if research is done just as a "disaster check," negative results not disastrous will undermine confidence and often lead to adoption of safer, less-different solutions.

Tait's antidote to marketing science is to engage the CEO in the branding process. If the Chief Executive embraces truly different ideas, quantitative research is no longer needed to establish their legitimacy.

But CEOs are human, too. Despite their confidence and accomplishments, CEOs are not immune to The Zajonc Effect.

Because it's my duty to create differentiated brand names for my clients, I have to counteract their instinctive aversion to the new and unfamiliar. To do that, I use these presentation techniques:


When presenting a candidate brand name, I repeat it at least 3 times. As clients hear the name over and over, it becomes familiar. Sometimes, I get sneaky: If there's a candidate name I'll be recommending, and if it's a real word, I'll casually and naturally include the word when chatting with the client before the meeting starts. By merely hearing the word earlier, a client is more likely to accept it when it's presented as a candidate name. Exposure research shows this is actually the best way to foster familiarity.
The mere-exposure effect is amplified if stimuli, rather than being consciously perceived, are perceived without awareness.
Names that the client rejects in a first naming presentation have a funny way of coming back in favor during later presentations. No longer strange and unfamiliar, these names get a second chance with a second look.


Clients become more comfortable with a candidate name if they think a company has already succeeded using a similar approach. Showing a simple list of successful brands that are comparable to the candidate name in style, metaphor or construction, makes the unfamiliar name seem familiar and pre-proven. Care must be taken in framing the category of the name and the selection of analogous brands; the candidate name should not seem derivative or undifferentiated in that context.

Here's an example: At Landor, I was part of the team who worked with Earthlink to create a name for their municipal wi-fi service. Our immediate clients guided us, made decisions on name candidates, and determined what should be the recommended finalist. But they didn't have the authority to render a final decision on the one go-to-market name. That responsibility rested with the executive team who would have the final recommended name unveiled to them.

Unveiling a final name to decision makers who have had no involvement is not exactly a recipe for success.

The recommended name for Earthlink's wi-fi service was Feather. Despite our clients' enthusiasm, I was concerned by how their senior executives might react. Something told me that the executive team, all men, in Georgia, might not cotton to Feather. It would seem too light and airy. In their eyes, they were building communications infrastructure for the future, not...feathers.

I used analogy to frame Feather as a strong, leader brand by placing it in a list with these actual brand names:
The technique worked. One of the executives said, "Gosh, what's a Shell? It's light, small, delicate and it's got nothing to do with their business. But they're huge." If Shell can be big and strong, so can Feather.

That's the power of analogy.


A name presentation should help an audience suspend disbelief. Words that clients have never seen as brands are not easily envisioned by them as brands. It's a namer's job to help the client imagine how a word on a page could become their brand. Some of this facilitated imagination is done through storytelling: the background and inspiration of the name, its fit with strategy, and the implications for identity, messaging, advertising, promotions, nomenclature, product design and so on.

But a thousand words can't do what one picture can. That's why I always show names in a real-world context, like a business card, building sign or package. The more realistic and credible the context, the more likely the client will see the candidate as a viable option. To avoid confounding variables, every name is presented in the same typeface in the same exhibit.

Text can provide further context. Just below the name exhibit, the first sentence of a press release includes the candidate name. By including multiple real-world contexts on a page, the client is better equipped to imagine the name as their name. And, repeating the name on a page fosters a sense of familiarity.

Instincts are essential for survival, but not every instinct should be followed. Our natural and protective fear of things different can also undermine our true best interests. When it comes to branding, your instinct can be your enemy. Fight fear of the unfamiliar as if the future of your brand hangs in the balance. Because it does.