Do We Love New Things?

Do We Really Love New Things?

Posted Feb 21, 2011

Rest In Peace, little car: 1935-2011

Just days ago, and after almost 76 years of offering the world the game of Monopoly, Parker Brothers introduced a radically new version.

There are no dice. No Chance or Community Chest Cards. And to the disappointment of thousands who loved to play Bank Robber while they played the old Monopoly, this new iteration has eliminated cash, too.

The cute pewter race car and top hat? Sorry. They're being smelted somewhere right now, to be reincarnated as plates and beer mugs.

Will it work?

Parker Brothers is rolling the dice, because we love the familiar. We get our first lesson in that from politics, when we first hear a television pundit predict that Candidate A will win because of superior "name familiarity." We elect familiar names, gravitate to people at parties who happened to attend our college, and are unusually inclined to move to a city with a name that begins with the letter that begins our last name.

Things that seem familiar feel safe. But as horror movies like Jaws and Psycho demonstrate, and fellow blogger, Harvard professor, and horror novelist Dr. Steven Schlozman pointed out in his February 15 blog, "The Horrors, The Horrors!", the unfamiliar scares us. Dr. Schlozman showed that every scary movie follows a pattern.

The movie starts with something utterly familiar: Janet Leigh stops at a nice little roadside motel in Psycho, and the teenage girl skinny-dips into the Atlantic in Jaws. Everything proceeds normally and at a languid pace, to lull us into a feeling of familiarity. Janet Leigh takes a long warm shower to rinse away the stress of a day robbing her bank. Jaws' swimmer laughs as she treads water in a calm Atlantic ocean.

And then things turn unfamiliar. Through the shower curtain, we see the bathroom door opening slowly, then the silhouette of an older woman. From a hundred feet below the Jaws' swimmer, we see her legs kicking. What is the intruder doing and who is spying at the girl from below?

In Psycho and Jaws, this sudden shift from the familiar to the unfamiliar jolts us.

That kind of shift can jolt shoppers, too. On September 8, 2006, thousands of Chicagoans visited Marshall Field's, which for years had been Chicago's town square. "I will met you under the clock at Marshall Field's" was a Chicago tradition.

On September 9, thousands stayed away. Why?

Because on September 9, Marshall Field's changed its almost 126 year-old name to Macy's. The store was the same, but the familiar name was gone, and Chicagoans demanded the familiar. (Exactly a year after the name change, many former Field's' shoppers demanded it again, by picketing the store.)

But wait! After years of hearing commercials shout "new and improved!", we must love the new and improved. But think what those words actually mean. "Improved" reassures us that this new product is actually just a better version of the old familiar one. It's good old Crest, but now with whitening!

Yes, we marketers know that there are buyers in every category who love the newest thing. We call them the Innovators. And we also know that if all we ever appeal to is Innovators, we may never be able to afford another filet mignon. Innovators make up about 8 percent of a market segment.

Do we fear the new instinctively? In Prometheus Rising, author Robert Wilson argues that we do--when we begin to raise children. Thomas Kuhn makes a related point in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he concluded that science doesn't progress steadily because scientists, like all of us, lock into paradigms; they heed the rules they've heard for years. For a breakthrough to happen, that generation must be replaced by a new one that challenges this old orthodoxy and sees--and helps cause--a paradigm shift. Only when that new idea finally becomes familiar will a generation adopt it.

(The personal computer finally came about when computing's first generation, tied to the paradigm of massive mainframes, was replaced by the next, led by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. These floppy-haired rebels resisted the old thinking, which was typified by a notorious comment made by Ken Olson, the CEO of Digital Equipment Company (later DEC), in 1977.

"There is no reason," Olson insisted, "why anyone would ever want a computer in their home."

Do we love the new and improved? It appears the answer is no and yes: Add whitening to our toothpaste, more resolution to our computer screen, or a more modern-looking Atlantic City to our Monopoly, and we'll buy. But change the whole paradigm, and what happens?

You're more apt to scare us than to sell us.

--Harry Beckwith ( speaks and lectures on marketing and buyer behavior all over the world.  He wrote the worldwide bestseller Selling the Invisible and the just-released Unthinking: The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy.

About the Author

Harry Beckwith

Harry Beckwith, J.D., is the author of five books including Selling the Invisible and What Clients Love.

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