The Psychology Behind Classic Products

The mere exposure effect has a sibling on steroids that loves to bring the ante. NaS, short for New and Safe, takes simple classics and expands its legacies.

Let’s look at how brands orchestrate their mission impossibles with classics’ suave nature to influence our consumer behavior.

“The name is Bond. James Bond.”

This iconic one-liner is agent 007’s verbal signature. From his tuxedo to his Omega watch to the Aston Martin he’s driving, Bond defines the classic spy essence.

By Matt Johnson, Phd., and Prince Ghuman

Being labeled as classic means being timeless. Imagine an indefinite lingering breathless moment… now that’s what timeless pronounces itself to be. But, as you’ll find, the true testament of beholding the classic aura lies in the healthy balance between being familiar but refreshing time after time.

Mr. Bond’s suave and witty charm encapsulates the agent’s classic demeanor. To maintain the legacy, the addition of new installments to the seven-billion dollar Bond franchise continues to create the initial commotion of relevancy among its fans, which drives the anticipation for 007’s return.

To understand our love for classics and why the brain is driven to it, let’s embark on the mission of uncovering its psychological makeup.

The Science Behind Classic Products: Mere Exposure Effect and the “New and Safe” (NaS) Principle

Ever wonder how classics come to be, well…classic?

First, it starts with the introduction of an item, film, or character into society. If received well by many, then said-release becomes a hit or the talk of the town. But at some point, that noise of excitement tends to dim down and just becomes a memory of the past. Although when it comes to classics, it becomes the infinite pleasant talk of the town. It will leave such a significant imprint in your life that it will be ever more relevant.

After a classic has then established itself as this timeless topic, it transforms aspects of your life and triggers that relevancy element in the future—should you ever come across it. You may experience this once you come across a man in a tuxedo ordering a “medium, dry martini with a lemon peel,” which instantly reminds you of the James Bond character.

If something is familiar to you, it means you’ve seen it before. Your recollection of James Bond from the tuxedo and martini is backed by what neuroscientists call the mere exposure effect. The more you’re exposed to something, the more you like it and the more the talk of the town continues. Fascinatingly, this preference for the familiar appears to operate completely outside your awareness. Similarly, in contrast to Starbucks’ Caramel Apple Spice—the less superior seasonal product—during the fall, a classic’s characteristics instantaneously become the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

The mere exposure effect, however, has a sibling on steroids that loves to bring the ante. NaS, short for New and Safe, takes simple classics and expands its legacies. Coined in our book Blindsight, the NaS principle is the invisible lasso that reins in your interest in the classics rodeo. Chapter 8 further describes NaS as “optimiz[ing] for the Goldilocks zone between novelty and familiarity”. This is like experiencing a nightmare where you have to pinch yourself out of the unusual factor of the novel aspect. But upon waking up, the familiar touch of your skin and feeling your arm throbbing from the pinch is the cue needed to remind you that you’re safe.

The paradox that is NaS is like breathing from an oxygen tank—its got a gravitational force that keeps you engaged. Although “there isn’t a magic ratio for familiar to new. The trick is to not overdo either, and to find the perfect balance between the two” (Blindsight, 2020). Failure to do so can feel like an overwhelming burst of oxygen that feels uncomfortable. But if NaS is executed correctly, it will feel like a refreshing breath of air. Let’s see how NaS plays out in music.

DJ Khaled’s 2017 “Wild Thoughts” with Bryson Tiller and Rihanna was a way of spicing up Santana’s 1999 “Maria Maria”. The new version of the song captured the classic’s essence while incorporating current musical themes to make it relevant. Even Santana stated that DJ Khaled’s performance caught the “timeless summer vibe” that “Maria Maria” was well known to have established. As Blindsight suggests, “the brain likes the safety of familiarity” but as well as “the newness of novelty”, allowing for classics to be engraved in our minds.

Now that you’ve got the psychological makeup behind our natural propensity for the classics, let’s look at how brands orchestrate their mission impossibles with classics’ suave nature to influence our consumer behavior.

How Classics Play a Role in Branding and Product Placements

Classics are the tattoos of endurance; they stain the face of pop culture. But before brands can become an audience favorite, they must find a way to stand apart in the sea of competitors.

A brand’s identity is the instantaneous self-pitch to consumers. Brands embedded with the classic aura have managed to label themselves as the ‘go-tos’ in our minds. This results in consumers leaning more towards classic favorites since it has been wired in our brains as reliable and satisfying—no Debby downers in sight.

The chocolatey goodness of Snickers has many reaching out for it at the last second during checkout. But in 2007-2009, the chocolate brand started to experience a drop in sales and this was due to its incapability to retain consumers. Snickers knew it didn’t lack brand awareness though it wasn’t a part of the popular crowd either. This led to the introduction of the “you’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign, which focused on being memorable and relatable to the younger and older audiences. The ads featured icons or classic figures with a mix of comedy to serve NaS as the full-course meal to have the consumer craving a Snickers bar for dessert.

Super Bowl XLIV was the ‘break it or make it’ moment for Snickers’ new campaign. The ad featured American’s favorite Golden Girl, Betty White, who wasn’t performing at her best during a game of football with the boys. With the use of humor to appeal to the audience, the commercial resulted in success so much so that it was ranked as the number one Super Bowl ad in a USA Today poll that year, generating 400 million incremental and unpaid media impressions that are worth $28.6 million in value—11.4 times the initial investment!

Overall, two years after launching the new marketing campaign resulted in a 15.9% increase in global sales and a tremendous market share growth in 56 out of the 58 markets. This allowed Snickers to surpass its competition by a landslide. Dear competitors, you’re not you when you’re hangry…eat a Snickers.

Another way brands have managed to intertwine themselves with classics is by becoming synonymous with the classic itself—through product placements. This is similar to just how Omega and Aston Martin have encoded themselves in the DNA that defines Bond’s persona, which sparks the desire of die-hard fans to want to be like the classic figure they idolize. They want to own the Omega watch he wears, the Aston Martin he drives, the vodka martini he drinks, they want to experience what it’s like to be a classic. In doing so, these brands’ value received the proclaimed Bond status.

Aston Martin beholds 007’s sophistication and sleek attitude. Catching the eye of many Bond aspirers, in 2010 the original 1964 Aston Martin DB5 model was auctioned off in London for $4.6 million. The car was decked out with the gadgets used for the films Goldfinger and Thunderball. After receiving a positive turn out the first time around, a second auction was held later on that same year. A 1965 DB5 without the spyware used in the GoldenEye installment sold for $2.5 million. Fans continued to be Aston Martin-craze prompting the automobile company to respond to customer demand by relaunching 25 limited-edition DB5s collectible cars (gadgets included) for the price point of $3.5 million during the release of No Time to Die. 

James Bond. Now that’s a spy that continues to withstand the test of time. Brands that want to replicate the effect that 007 has must do with NaS, as every new installment does… “shaken but not stirred” (new but safe).

Johnson and Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses” and co-author of “Blindsight – The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains”.  You can check out more of their writing here.

This article originally appeared on PopNeuro. Photo by Aaron Huber on Unsplash.

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