Heuristics: Using Familiarity To Nurture Trust And Brand Allegiance

Familiarity or pattern recognition is one of the first heuristics we use as a child to be fed. We know that our mother gives us food, so gravitate more to her than dad. We also learn that crying at the right intervals will get us changed and fed. We recognise the familiar pattern and triggers.

Familiarity breeds trust in brand, message and product

Much along the lines of our allegiance to a trusted brand, the familiarity heuristic makes use of what we already know, our established learnings. Known is safe, the unknown breeds fear. 

While looking to be efficient, if we already know 5 steps in a process, adding one more is a lot easier than starting 6 new steps. We are lazy and go with the familiar. It’s why coaches ask us to perform drills of familiar techniques before trying something new. Get us feeling comfortable and accomplished, before we try something else. 

It’s also why going cold turkey to break a habit is difficult. Especially if your routines, fridge and shopping still revolve around the old habit. 

James Clear has a brilliant article on Habit Stacking, that builds from this. Take a read.

Pattern recognition – same old, same old

When we see something play out the same way consistently we get lazy and assume it will happen again. We can use this in a positive and negative way as a brand too.

Here’s some pattern examples to think about:

  • The Hero’s Journey is used in so many movies (Star Wars, The Hobbit, Harry Potter and Finding Nemo). Copy and case studies following this path are very easy to consume and relate to.
    • “You must unlearn what you have learned.” *Yoda
    • “Use this product you must”. *Not Yoda.
  • Cyclical markets. Bear follows Bull. Stocks go up, and down. Banks and financial advisers are constantly highlighting these trends to drive adoption/actions.
  • The fairytale ending. Want to stand out? Have your hero not live happily ever after.
  • Location tracking confirms we are creatures of habit. Prominent digital billboards charge a premium at peak times. 9 times out of 10 I take the same path to the supermarket, every weekend.
  • Dual screening during the Netflix hunt at 8pm is a thing. Checking your work email Monday morning is obvious.
  • Spotting the adoption trigger points in user cohorts, reading heat maps and understanding what time of day your product is used, is a must.
  • Using analytics to discover and build the best trigger, action, reward and investment in your app is one of the most valuable processes you can adopt.

Find an action trigger tied to a primal need, that is part of your users daily routine and that drives a viral loop…

You WIN.

Keeping thinks familiar

Take our phones for example. We would much rather NOT have to learn a new operating system every time we upgrade our phone. This heuristic and the associated reluctancy to learn new things, could be part of what is deeply behind the iOS vs. Android allegiances. 

Another example. If you have always used a Qwerty keyboard, switching to Dvorak and learning to type again is far too unfamiliar. Despite claims that your fingers will move 50% less – it’s a step too far.

It took me a month at university to learn to tie my shoes properly. Out with the ‘bunny ears’ or ‘loop, swoop and pull’, in with THIS. This bow sits flatter across the shoe and ties faster. 

Ditching the familiar method after 13 years was hard, and a good brand can leverage this by changing slowly, being reliable and being familiar. 

Familiarity in software and websites

In English (and most languages) we read left to right so we expect the correct or affirmative choice between two options to be first or left choice.

Software updates are the trickiest. The pesky ‘restart now’ vs. ‘remind me later’ dialog for software updates has caught me out so many times. Of course they want me to click the left button, but it is NEVER the action I want to take and I get left with important files not backed up, and the system restarting. This has caught me out so often, that I draft only in Google docs now, to avoid losing progress.  

When designing user interfaces consistent locations for navigation and actuators breeds familiarity. Search is usually top right. Start an action, bottom right. New file, top left. Logo, top left. 

There are universally recognisable icons too. The looking glass for search. Three connected nodes for share. Many of my most used apps have a common actuator. Strava, Trello, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and WordPress all use the plus icon to start their core actions.  

Mimic the most popular apps

  • reply, retweet, share, are in the same place across all Twitter apps and websites
  • like, comment, share, is also in the same order across all Meta interfaces and platforms. 

Maintain a similar tone and voice in copy 

Consistency in copy and communications will also enforce the familiarity heuristic. This is why brands fight over trademarks, slogans and replica items. It’s this familiarity that makes us think that a red can of cola with white letters on it is closer to Coca Cola in flavour. Far closer than a house branded white and orange supermarket cola.

It’s also why many brands adopt jingles. Their latest campaign might be quite different – unknown territory – for the audience. Adding the jingle ties it back to our familiar reliable brand. Think about that McDonalds jingle or the Intel inside four chimes.

Iterate fast, but change the look slowly

A brand that is also very conscious of the familiarity heuristic are Heinz. Their packaging design takes a very iterative, slow progression. They don’t ever want there to be a situation where buyers are confused at the shelf. 

One classic example of logo progression, and holding onto this recognition is in the Starbucks cup design.

So knowing that familiarity is a powerful driver some areas we can explore are:

  • Creating common messaging, images and sounds
  • Simplifying the variety of navigational or interactive features we have. https://fontawesome.com, is a great tool to leverage common logos and icons consistently.    
  • Make something part of an existing routine.
  • Following the paths and methods of others – see Rolez, Ookley, Dulce Gabbana and other ‘rip off’ labels. 
  • Or creating our own label that becomes the Noun or verb of the industry.
  • Become the brand that people can make an everyday part of their life,  like scotch tape, the Hoover or Googling it. 

Let’s build that familiar trust. 

Want to lear more about heuristics check out:

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