Making the Novel Familiar

You know the song “Hey Ya!” by OutKast – that funky, hip-hop/big band swing sounding song that earned a Grammy and sold 5.5 million albums.  You probably have caught yourself humming the tune or even singing, “Hey Yaaaaaa.”  But did you know that “Hey Ya!” was a flop at first?

If you’re a Target shopper, you know they provide you with just the right coupons at the right times.  Their direct mail, electronic, and in-store couponing alignment with what you want to buy seems uncanny.  Both the song “Hey Ya!” and Target’s couponing strategies depend on an important concept in marketing – making the novel familiar.

“Hey Ya!” was initially a flop because it sounded so different from anything else on the radio.  Whenever it was played people changed the station.  It was too different.  It didn’t fit with what people were expecting to hear on the radio – namely songs they already knew or new songs that sounded like songs they already knew.

So what did the music executives and radio stations do?  They sandwiched the playing of “Hey Ya!” in between two bonafide hits.  They kept playing “Hey Ya!” in between accepted hit songs until the audience began to think of “Hey Ya!” as an ‘oldie but goodie.’  It worked, within months it was a runaway success.

Target, on the other hand, collects so much consumer data that it knows more about your life and preferences than you do (seriously).  In fact, early in the 2000’s, they began to create algorithms that identified women who were most likely pregnant simply by their purchasing habits (pregnant women and mothers of young children, it seems, are financial gold – they are open to the idea of purchasing new things so Target really wants them in their stores).

But identifying pregnant women caused a problem.  How could Target market to women who were most likely pregnant when the women didn’t tell Target they were pregnant?  Target understandably feared that women may not take kindly to having their private lives peered into so intently.

So, for the believed-to-be pregnant women, Target began to “sandwich” coupons for diapers, bottles, strollers, etc., in with random items like lawn mowers or glasses or paper products.  In this way, the fact that Target suspected a woman was pregnant was not known by the woman.  And yet they were still marketing specifically to her.  It worked.  By sandwiching their targeted coupons for pregnant women in between more “regular” products, sales for the Mom and Baby section went through the roof.

Now, I’m not suggesting how Target uses its consumer data is good or ethical.  However, what I am suggesting is that our brains are wired to accept the familiar and look more suspiciously at the unfamiliar.  Whether it be a new song, or coupons that we receive in the mail, if what we are confronted with feels familiar and is alignment with what we expect, we are more likely to respond favorably.

So how might this understanding help us in our advancement work?  I would suggest that we should be mindful in our direct response vehicles, case statements, phone scripts, etc., to incorporate stories that make our institutions feel even more familiar to our donors and prospects.  Tell a story about a student and her struggles, ambitions and values (which continue similar themes to those students who came decades before her).  Talk about the professor who checks on students who miss class (yes, they still do that).  Remind donors that even though your client’s native language may not be English, their concerns, problems, and dreams, are similar to clients of 25 years ago.

Familiarity, it seems, doesn’t always breed contempt.  The research strongly suggests it also breeds acceptance.

Thanks:  In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg does a commendable job of digging into this concept.  It is worth the read if you’ve not yet done so.


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