The Affective Power of Familiarity in Marketing

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on January 14
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MarketScale_Mustang_Familiarity.jpgIn a service economy charged with the production of affects, the emotional appeal of familiarity emerges as a particularly hot commodity. The experience of “familiarity” can take many forms.   At Cracker Barrel, the experience of the familiar arguably emerges in the production of a retail space that immerses customers in an environment adorned in the iconography of pre-industrial, small-town, nostalgia—a period commonly associated with cultural narratives of social inclusion and community. And just in case customers miss the point, the walls are filled with old family photos—a literal visual rhetoric of the familiar. Sure, in rational terms, we may not actually know the families that people these photos. But customer experiences are not rational; they’re about feelings: “Mmmh! Apple butter—just like grandma used to make!”

OK, so places like Cracker Barrel sell a certain nostalgic experience of “familiarity” and belonging. Likely, most readers can think of quite a few brands that sell this experience. However, the customer desire for an experience of familiarity extends to subtler, yet more clandestine, dimensions of consumption. In fact, the very power and appeal of a “brand” is intrinsically and fundamentally tied to consumer desires for the experience of the familiar: We purchase brands because they offer a sense of familiarity—we know and recognize them.

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Consider Ford—a company well known for the production of both cars and brands. One does not simply invest in the use-value of a Ford Mustang as a means of transportation. As a brand, a Ford Mustang serves as the device for the production of affective experiences.

Certainly, “familiarity” is not the only emotional appeal of the Ford Mustang. According to Jeremy Rifkin, the power and value of a consumer-product relationship based in familiarity has emerged as an organizing principal in Ford’s business model:

Ford would rather never sell you a car again…. It would rather put you in its network, so that you continually buy the experience of driving rather than buying the vehicle. And the proof is in the pudding. The renewal rate on leasing is 54%. The renewal rate in market-based transactions is 25%.

Simply put, Rifkin’s point here is that Ford’s profits lie less in the making and selling of individual cars than in the company’s capacity to arrange ongoing relationships between consumers and products. Typically, the purchase of a car results in a finite series of payments designed to eventually culminate in final ownership. In this purchasing model, the goal of a sale is to facilitate customer ownership a specific Ford car. Yet full car ownership also implies a finite relationship between customers and the Ford brand: Once a customer owns the car, that customer’s overall relationship with Ford is more likely to come to an end. The shift to leasing inaugurates more than an affordable purchasing alternative; instead, the lease facilitates the ongoing payment for a perpetual, sustained relationship over time—not just car possession, but tri-yearly trade-ins that often coincide with newly updated Ford models, coupled with ongoing financial services, as well as other products and services. In short, leasing provides the financial means to organize an ongoing relationship—not merely between consumers and Ford cars, but between consumers and the Ford brand. Instead of selling individual cars, leasing enables Ford to sell customers an ongoing relationship with the Ford brand—immersion in an ongoing experience of familiarity.

 Leasing and Buying as Different Narrative Form

The point here is not that traditional purchase-to-own sales models do not also involve relationships of brand loyalty—certainly, customers loyal to the Ford brand are very likely to continuing purchasing Ford vehicles over time, whether or not that purchase involves a lease or leads to full ownership. Rather, the point is that leasing supports an ongoing relationship based more exclusively on an investment in the Ford brand than in specific material products—in a lease, the vehicles change, but the connection to a familiar brand experience remains the same.

Ford’s investments in leasing represent one version of a larger shift: We no longer buy things; instead, we invest in the familiar experience of a brand. Actual cars change over time, but investing in the abstract permanence of a brand enables a comforting relation of consistent familiarity—consistency despite change. In an age of e-commerce, brands offer customers a means of recovering the comforting permanence of relationships once found in the familiar faces at the corner store.

Simply put, brands offer customers ongoing relationships—relationships produced and maintained through narratives over time. As two means of organizing the financial arrangement involved in purchasing a car, a lease and a traditional loan also represent two very different forms of narratives: Each implies a different relationship between buyers, products and brands over time. At MarketScale, we believe narrative marketing involves much more than the promotion of products. Rather, MarketScale’s mission lies in the cultivation and maintenance of meaningful relationships between customers and companies across time.To be continued…

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