Entering a New Market? Harness the Power of Familiarity

When AACo hired me as an advisor, they had a big problem to solve: no one in the US had interest in their product, Australian Wagyu beef, even though they were the world’s largest producer of the delicacy and had won some very prestigious global competitions with it.

That unfamiliarity caused steak-lovers in the US to stick to the much better-known USDA Prime and Japanese Wagyu, to the detriment of AACo’s sales. The company’s specific challenge reflects a critical obstacle any innovator faces when introducing their product or idea: Inertia, wherein people habitually favor what they know at the expense of experiencing something new. It’s one of the four primary Frictions working against a new idea, as discussed in my book The Human Element

Complicating matters further is that innovators instinctively want to emphasize the novelty of their offering, which often has the opposite effect of entrenching potential consumers more deeply into the status quo, even if the innovation represents something genuinely better. 

One of the most powerful ways to reduce the ubiquitous friction of Inertia and the resistance that comes with it is to make the new seem, well, not-so-new.  You can do this by harnessing the power of familiarity. This approach eases a consumer’s discomfort with something novel and paves the way to trying–and potentially liking–your product or idea.

1) Use a familiar form.

AACo’s underlying challenge with their Australian Wagyu was that consumers simply didn’t know how to compare one premium steak to another. And unless you are a beef aficionado (they exist!), why would you?  Working with company leadership, my colleagues and I helped AACo adopt a tried and true commercial approach from a different domain: wine. The wine sector amplifies its products’ preciousness by using ratings, provenance, tasting notes, and other familiar features to entice consumers to try new products amidst a sea of confusing options. So, we lovingly borrowed that familiar form for Wagyu.  We created menus that included “tasting notes,”  provenance, and marble scores to help diners better relate to the cuts on offer. Reorienting the market’s understanding in this familiar way worked wonders, and AACo’s sales moo-ved in the right direction quickly (sorry)!

2) Use a familiar face.

This is about reducing Inertia through the power of endorsement. Not so much associating a celebrity–athlete, actor, other–with a product to amp up its “cool” factor, but to reduce its unfamiliarity by leveraging a familiar messenger. One example that shows up regularly on daytime TV is actor Tom Selleck pitching the value of reverse mortgages. Many target consumers–typically older viewers–are understandably wary of this financial product (“Will I lose my house?!”) but feel comforted by the familiar face of Magnum PI. And it needn’t be a celebrity endorser. As an investor in startups, I’m much more willing to take a meeting with a founder to whom an investor or entrepreneur I know has introduced me than with one who cold calls me. The familiarity of my colleagues transfers to the founder, reducing my discomfort. 

3) Use a familiar model.

In the face of Inertia, an analogy can be a powerful tool. It’s why countless startup pitches in recent years have been built around some version of “It’s Uber for (fill-in-the-blank).” It makes a novel idea instantly familiar. In the domain of women’s health, Sabrina Martucci Johnson, CEO of Daré Bioscience, has countered longtime gender bias in male investors by comparing novel women’s birth-control products to condoms and female-arousal drugs to Viagra. The strategy is working; for example, Daré is co-launching a medicated gel for bacterial vaginosis with Merck spinoff Organon.

4) Use repeated, gradual exposure. 

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but so does greater exposure. That’s because repeated encounters with something lead to a sense of familiarity, reducing Inertia. Consider the example of a business leader ready to roll out a new strategy to their company, shifts that will mean significant changes to how employees do their jobs. The leadership team has been working on the shift for some time, and top executives are excited about it. But a “big reveal”-type event would likely backfire, as it would light up employees’ unfamiliarity antennae and yield immediate resistance–due to Inertia. Instead, I’d advise a more gradual approach that communicates the motivation, core ideas, and highlights of the strategy over time, well before the sizzle of an All-Hands meeting. That’s exactly what we did in my days working for consulting firms–we shared our (often big) ideas with clients in smaller-scale forms through progress meetings and less formal conversations, before the full unveiling at the final meeting. That lowered significantly the risk of resistance to our ideas. 

Inertia is real and powerful. It’s one of the main reasons any new idea or product will fail. Use the ideas here to step back, understand this large source of resistance, and harness the power of familiarity to get your innovation out in the world successfully.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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