Have you ever noticed that when given a choice between a product that you have never seen before and a product that you have seen before but have not yet tried, you will choose the latter? You will do so even if you have not read a review about it or have not received any feedback from people you know.
This is instinct. When given a choice, we revert to something that seems familiar, no matter how vaguely. And this instinct is what many brands bank on; the main reason why commercials of products are repeated over and over and over until every second or every detail of the ad is ingrained in our brains. We begin to develop a positive emotion towards the product, which is also retained.
This phenomenon is called the “Mere-Exposure Effect”. You can use this in your own marketing strategies, too! Let’s find out how.
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Understanding your audience is one of the first things that marketers need to learn. This involves conducting thorough research and testing, which takes a lot of time and effort. Fortunately for us, most of the studies have already been done in the past and are now easily accessible through the Internet.
The earliest record of research done on the Mere Exposure Effect (MEE) was in the last quarter of the 19th century by Gustav Fechner, an experimental psychologist from Germany. Whilst Fechner is credited as the first person to have looked into this psychological phenomenon, it’s not until the 1960s that more in-depth studies were made.
From the name itself, you might deduce that it has something to do with frequent “exposure” – and you would be right: the idea is for people to be constantly presented with the same stimuli that they would eventually easily (and subconsciously) recognize it and associate a positive feeling towards it.
So, how does the Mere-Exposure Effect affect marketing strategies? The answer to this question is both simple and complicated; simple in the sense that it revolves around the idea of “familiarity”, and complicated in the sense that there is no single “right” way to apply it in marketing.
To understand this better, here’s a crash course on the Mere Exposure Effect and the ways you could use it to help you develop better and more successful marketing strategies.
What is the Mere-Exposure Effect?
Sometimes also referred to as the familiarity principle, the Mere Exposure Effect is considered one of the most successful techniques to integrate into marketing and advertising. Social sociologist Robert Zajonc conducted experiments to observe the effects of repeatedly exposing people to specific stimuli. He would then eventually develop the concept of the Mere-Exposure Effect through this series of experiments.
In the early years of his experiments, Zajonc found that people are more likely to develop a positive reaction to certain words that they are already familiar with. At the time, he was looking at language and how frequently certain words are used by his subjects.
For instance, if a person is frequently exposed to the word “create” and therefore becomes more “familiar” with the word, then the person will tend to rate the word as more positive than other similar words like “make” or “build”.
Zajonc would eventually explore using other stimuli such as facial expressions (in photographs), shapes, and drawings, and the results he got were the same: people favored the particular stimulus that they are more exposed to.
Apart from Zajonc, other experts in the field followed suit and further explored the concept. In all the studies, the results are pretty much the same as what Zajonc has initially concluded.
The most recent study conducted in 2001 by Zola-Morgan even goes so far as to state that cognition is not even needed for the MEE to take effect.
This means that even when the brain doesn’t actively absorb the information presented by the stimuli, the emotional part of the brain will still be able to react to it.
This goes to show that the “feeling” that is associated with the stimuli is instilled in the brain and will take effect even when the conscious mind is not “aware” of or does not “recognize” it.
This becomes especially useful when you want to establish a long-term effect on your target audience, which is essentially the most ideal result that you should get from marketing.
The Phases Of The Mere Exposure Effect
Using the MEE in marketing can be summed up into three main phases, as described below. It might seem like an oversimplification of the entire process and the effects it has on your audience, but once you develop a good understanding of the phases below, you should be able to easily apply it to your marketing strategy.
Phase I: Repetition
The Mere Exposure Effect has been proven effective in overall retention, which is especially helpful in marketing. It’s also been found to trigger feelings of attachment, belonging, and nostalgia-like memories.
No matter how pragmatic and practical a person is, his decision-making process when buying is heavily influenced by his emotions. Have a look at our in-depth discussion on Customer Buying Motivations to have a better grasp of this concept.
If the item being advertised is not initially highly valued by the target audience, it will be difficult to create a strong enough positive association with the item to increase sales. This is where repetition comes in: while you don’t necessarily have to tap into an existing “familiarity” among potential customers, starting with a repetitive theme could trigger a response if they are constantly exposed to it.
Say you're walking through your local shopping mall and a moderately attractive woman walks past you. Are you more likely to remember her if she walks by again? It could be that you have never seen a woman who looks like her, so rather than remembering her as "average" or having a vague recollection, it might feel like she's truly special or beautiful – even more attractive than what you initially thought she is. You might even go back and look at her again just to be sure.
Where have I seen this woman before?
Now, this example highlights three major points why repetition is key: first, you might even have never noticed her the first time she walked by.
Second, even if you did notice her the first time, it might have just been in passing and you might not have noticed how attractive she was.
Third, if you see her a few more times, then by the Mere Exposure Effect, you are more likely to become more intrigued and “attached” to her in some way.
The Mere Exposure Effect isn't just about physical appearances either. You might have some favorite brands of cereal and toilet paper in your cabinets at home; you grew up using them and/or they are special to you.
Image from The Big Bang Theory
When you were a kid, your mom would usually just buy the non-brand cereal at the grocery store because you didn’t have much money then. Now that you have your own job, your own car, your own apartment – you can buy that box of Honey Puffs that you only ever got to have when you’re at your friend’s house, or when your mom got to buy it after doing some extra shifts at her job.
These memories are precious to you, and it reminds you of where you used to be and where you are now. You might have even tried another brand of cereal already, which you also like – but would it be as special?
If you think about it, the generic cereal was okay and isn’t really that different from the Honey Puffs one – but why did you associate Honey Puffs to that memory and why did you want it so bad then, even though you’ve never really had it before that sleepover at a friend’s house? It could be that your initial opinion of a brand is merely because you've been repeatedly exposed to it over the years.
You might not have noticed it, but Repetition played a key role in that memory of yours.
Repetition is vital to brand recognition. How often have you seen the same commercial over and over that by the end of the week, you have memorized every line, tune, or action? Even when you’re not looking, the moment the commercial starts and you hear it, you can see the visuals in your mind’s eye. You would even mumble the lines or sing the song yourself!
Phase II: Familiarity
After repetition comes familiarity – in all the studies, the benefits of the Mere Exposure Effect can be observed only by repeatedly exposing subjects to stimuli. The basic premise of the MEE, as mentioned above, is that it taps into what the audience is already used to: something “familiar” and something that reminds them about a positive thing.
Think of it this way: if you have a good relationship with a friend, and that friend introduces someone to you, this will make you more likely to trust that new person. This new person might also be the one who introduces you to another new friend, which is how these relationships begin.
Somehow, even if you don’t know this 3rd person long enough, you’d be more inclined to trust him because he was introduced by a friend of a friend.
Now, imagine if a complete stranger tries to introduce to you that same person – you wouldn’t feel the same, right?
If you can associate a product or service to something or someone that you already have a “relationship” with and are, therefore “familiar” with, then you’re more likely to think more favorably of the product/service.
This familiarity will even grow stronger and even vary, depending on how often you spend time with these persons. For instance, if you see or chat with the 3rd person more often than your 1st friend, do you think you’d be much closer to that 1st friend than you are now with the 3rd person? Most probably, you won’t. While you still like your 1st friend and are still in close contact with them, with the Mere Exposure Effect, you have built a stronger bond with the 3rd person just by merely being exposed to them constantly.
In marketing, as more people are exposed to an ad campaign or your company’s logo, they’re more likely to recognize it and become customers. You build the “relationship” by being in their minds, whether consciously or subconsciously.
This is exactly how the concept of trust badges begins -- with familiarity. If you see a logo of a brand you trust displayed on a webpage, you would instinctively feel less doubtful about that page because of trust transference.
They work with a brand you are confident with, so by dint of having a relationship with that brand, then this brand may also be trustworthy.
To get a full grasp of this concept, have a look at our article on how to gain user’s trust using trust badges.
Assuming that your brand has already achieved a certain level of familiarity among your customers, then building upon that familiarity should be your next goal, which brings us to the next phase.
Phase III: Retention
Customer retention in sales and marketing is one of the best ways to gain “passive” business.
Not only does it require much less time and effort, but it also helps assure that customers remain loyal to your brand, and therefore continue to patronize it.
With MEE, your customers will eventually develop a strong liking for your brand and products, simply because they get exposed to it constantly and continuously.
During this third phase, you can continue to apply the Mere Exposure Effect simply by publishing/creating more content for your audience. Tools like MailChimp, for instance, can help make sure that your customers never forget about you by sending out scheduled emails to existing customers.
There is one challenge you have to overcome, though: it takes a lot of effort to get to the Retention phase because you have to build on the Repetition and Familiarity phases first to get here. That being said, once you are at this stage, all you have to worry about is keeping your audience interested – which brings us back to… yes, you guessed it: Repetition.
Like the phases of the moon, the MEE is a cycle that goes around and works continuously. If you set it up well in the beginning, it will run like a well-oiled machine.
How Do You Use The Mere Exposure Effect?
Getting the most out of the Mere Exposure Effect starts with the details. Branding and retention can be achieved by developing a recognizable style for your product or company. This means that you have to take care of everything that is directly associated with your brand: from logos to social media posts to images you use online.
Hands-on, creative marketing strategies should lead people where you want them – not off to randomly sorting through search engines, but easily finding items on their own terms. Help customers find exactly what works best for them, even when they don’t know it themselves yet.
With this, make sure that as much goes into each step in your marketing strategy as you have done in building your product. Designing your content creation methodology around Digital Content Marketing (DCP), interactive & immersive experiences, and ads can help you achieve this.
Here are three ETRs that you should keep in mind when developing your own marketing strategy - whether digital and offline.
1. Easy To Recognize
Think of the three most popular social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). Now, think of the logos of those platforms, and see if you can picture them in your head. Most likely, you can – and you’d also be able to recognize those logos anywhere, for sure.
Whatever content you make, make sure that it can be easily recognized, because otherwise, it will be more difficult for you to capitalize on this in the future. If you have established something that people can easily identify right in the beginning, then as your company grows, so will people relate to it more.
Making something easy to recognize is as important to marketing as getting a child to become familiar with objects in its environment. Of course, further exposure to such objects will eventually make the child remember things, but everything starts with recognition.
Children are more likely to easily recognize the letter L than the letter M, simply because it has fewer strokes, and even the lower case letter is just a simple line. Now, if you create a logo for your brand, the simpler it is, the more easily recognizable it will be.
This is the main driver for the design principle of going on pairs, like having a maximum of two colors and two font types for logos and brand kits. Three or more means more details to memorize, reducing the chances of recognition and memorization.
Apart from making it simple, you should also think about creating the logo in such a way that all its components are easily recognizable. Tesla’s logo is basically a stylized letter T, same as with Honda’s H. Even if you remove the company names at the bottom of the logos, the images will still be easily recognizable.
Of course, creativity factors into this as well, but making sure that everything you associate with your business, be it a logo or a song, can be easily recognized on every platform available.
Here are some brand-related songs that are very simple, with simple tunes, simple lyrics, and uses repetition. We’re sure you are familiar with these:
It’s not Christmas without the Coca-Cola truck passing by!
Who else is lovin’ it?
2. Easy To Remember
If I ask you to describe what the logos of the top three social networking sites are, you would most likely say: “a blue bird, a blue square with an F on it, and a multi-colored square with a circle in the middle (like a camera).”
That wasn’t hard, was it? That’s because the logos are very easy to remember. These companies have grown significantly in the last decade, but if you think about it, these logos are already easy to remember from the start.
While these logos have had some changes in the past, the designers made sure that whatever changes they make, the logos would still be easily recognizable and easy to remember. If they stray too far off from what they originally made, chances are that people would not be able to recognize them as easily as before.
When you are developing your content, best to make it easy to remember from the get-go so that when you change it in the future, it would be easy to do so and your target audience would still be able to associate it with your brand.
Here are some ways to help make your brand easy to remember:
Put your mark on every content you release
Even when your brand is still not as big as Twitter or Facebook, if you use your logo on everything you publish, then it would be like signing your name on an important piece of document.
This is another way of “exposing” your customers to your brand because they would see the logo repeatedly and would then subconsciously retain that information.
Choose memorable themes in your commercials or ads
Apart from creative visuals, the overall theme should be something that is not easily forgettable. Remember that Christmas ad for Coca-Cola with Santa Claus? Or the other one with the polar bear? The theme became memorable not only because of the imagery, but the way that they used it in all their ads (on TV or otherwise).
Create logos, banners, and images that can be easily associated with what you are selling
If you develop your content around your brand, then your target audience will always be able to remember what you are and what you can offer.
If you are a car insurance company, for instance, and your website banner does not even have a photo of a car, then people might have to try and find that information elsewhere – which is pretty inconvenient.
You have to be able to convey your message clearly and effectively within the first few seconds that your customer visits your site.
The same goes for landing and offer pages.
Use audio/music that people can easily relate to
One reason why advertisers use popular songs in their commercials is that their target audience is already familiar with them and could then associate them with their brands.
If you are just starting out, try to find royalty-free songs that you could use for your content. A good example is Pachelbel’s Canon in D major, which a lot of people might already recognize from a movie or commercial that they have seen before.
Your audience’s familiarity with the music will make them feel comfortable with your product or offer, even if they don’t realize it.
In any case, it is best to aim for simplicity: develop your content and overall marketing strategy through things that are easy to remember to optimize the Mere Exposure Effect.
3. Easy To Repeat
Remember the three phases of the Mere Exposure Effect? Repetition is key – but when you create content that is not easy to repeat, then you might have a hard time benefiting from the MEE.
Even something as basic as your product or brand name can be used in the MEE, and components of your content that should be easy to repeat include the following.
It is said that for someone to easily remember something, you have to repeat it at least 4 times. Imagine having to get an actor for your TVC, and making that actor say the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation that many times. Not only will it take up much of your airtime, but it’s also not as impactful as HSBC.
Whilst abbreviations are good, something as easy to repeat as “Citibank” would be easier to recognize and remember.
Designers know this very well – logos that are easy to replicate and repeat are far more convenient than having one that is complicated. If you were to create publication materials of different sizes and on different platforms, sizing and color-correcting the logo might become a nightmare if you don’t make it easy to repeat.
You want all your content to have a recognizable theme, but repeating it on a TVC might not be the same as when you want it on a print ad or a banner on your website. As such, think of a way that you can use the theme through various media, and build from there.
In essence, you need to create a brand kit that will help you and the rest of your marketing team stay on track with how you represent your brand. A brand kit provides a unifying theme and format, after all.
A common way that this is used is with seasonal items, such as your favorite Pumpkin Spiced Latte. Basically, the overall theme is “Autumn”, so the theme, along with the other components of the content, can be easily “repeated” in a way.
Keep in mind that developing a concept and execution are two different things. Nevertheless, a good marketer knows how to identify when and how to apply such themes.
Colors are used in various ways, but making it easy to repeat and roll out into all aspects of your content creation strategy is something that you should prioritize. Coming from a designer’s perspective, whilst there are plenty of colors on the wheel, finding a good match for an existing color on a logo could be pretty challenging.
Of course, it is still possible to create content even when your logo color clashes with your theme, but why go through the trouble? Why not set one that you can easily repeat in any and all of your content? That will be so much more convenient, right?
This Is Where The Magic Happens
You might be asking: what makes the Mere-exposure Effect special? Once you have started incorporating MEE in all your marketing strategies, you will notice how “magical” it can be.
You create one content, but you can use it everywhere
It is a very cost-effective strategy – in the sense that just by creating one material (say, a Facebook ad), you get more people to remember your product. The content can also be used multiple times on various platforms, and you can get better traction from it.
You get better reach
With MEE, you might even find customers that are not initially within your target market. You can get access to such customers simply because they were “exposed” to your product enough that they become more curious, and then they find you and buy what you are offering.
You can make your brand stand out
Enabling your customers to differentiate you from others is probably one of the best things that could come from the Mere Exposure Effect. They will not mistake you for a similar brand because they would be able to recognize you right away.
You will get long-term effects
What most marketers focus on is short-term results (e.g. conversation rates), but utilizing the Mere Exposure Effect also creates long-lasting results. Some of your customers might not come in until much later, especially when you are not selling “essentials”.
Unless there is an urgent need for the product you have, the results of your strategy that applied the Mere-Exposure Effect will not be apparent immediately.
Fast-moving products such as food and beverages might get immediate and different results, as opposed to an insurance company or a real estate company. Nevertheless, the latter would still benefit from MEE in the long run – which is especially important if you want to keep your business going.
How To Start Applying The Mere Exposure Effect
We have already established that the MEE has good long-term effects, but of course, we also want to get results now. The Mere Exposure Effect can help improve your conversion rates, and here are some ways to achieve that.
- Be visible on all platforms
Not all people use Facebook, the same way that not everyone is on Twitter. Some people still rely on emails, while others don’t use social media at all and only ever watch videos on YouTube. If you want to get the maximum benefits of the MEE, try to use as many platforms that you can get your hands on (if you have enough budget, of course).
- Set up ads for at least a week
There is an adage in marketing that says that you should get your customers to see your ads at least seven times. This is because they are more likely to take action (i.e., buy) after being exposed to your content seven times. Assuming an average person in your target market is on a social media platform at least once a day, then set your ads up so that they will be on that platform for at least a week.
And we say at least, which means you can go as far as promoting your brand for more weeks, months, or even years, if you can! The more exposed your audiences are to your brand, the better. Just make sure that you are consistent with your promotions in order to use the full potential of the familiarity principle.
- Follow the pattern of popular websites
The first impression that a good website makes is definitely something that you would want to repeat and continuously “expose” your customers to. Follow the example of popular websites, and take note of and apply whichever part of the UI/UX design works best for you and your brand.
- Create Unique content
Take it from YouTubers and TikTok users: those who have found significant growth are the ones who have unique content. They say that we are at a time when people can easily have access to information, but what stands out are the people who curate and present such information to make them easily digestible for everyone.
Using the Mere Exposure Effect on Native Advertising
This phenomenon is used by new brands to not just capture the attention of audiences, but to also encourage them to make a purchase. How exactly can you do that with native advertising?
When faced with the choice between two things a person has never tried before, the one that looks familiar wins, hands down. So if in case you don’t have TV or Youtube commercials for your offer, or if you do not have enough budget to run online ads over and over without yet expecting a return, will you not be able to use this marketing strategy?
Actually, you can! Remember when we said that familiarity is key? Well, this is the number one reason why landing pages are created in such a way that they imitate something well-known. This way, you get the advantage without much cost, except of course if you copy a brand too closely that you end up getting sued for breaching someone else’s trademark. So when using this technique, be very careful.
Here’s how MEE is applied in native ads:
1. In the ad creative
The main driver of native ads is to imitate the look of organically recommended posts within the same website so as to give the impression that the recommended article belongs to the same website.
By obtaining the same look and theme, the familiarity phenomenon takes effect and is rewarded by the clicking action.
Even if it says “Sponsored Content”, the ad title, text, and image format all follow the same look.
2. In the Landing Page
Most landing pages follow the look of popular websites to capture that familiar feeling. To make these landers even more believable, they are peppered with logos of well-known companies.
Here are some examples:
This one has been made to look like a CNN subdomain. Aside from the CNN logo, the article and other parts of the page are riddled with popular personalities.
This one below looks like popular magazine-type websites. Aside from featuring a well-known personality, Meghan Markle, the page also displayed logos of famous brands like The New York Times, Today, RedBook, and StyleWatch.
3. The content of the landing page
Aside from visual cues (logos and overall page theme), parts of the content can also be used to initiate the familiarity principle.
For instance, this pre-lander below mentions Shark Tank, a popular TV show, in the article title and content.
Repetition plays an important role in this marketing strategy, so showing your ads to the same person who engaged with it in the past is more than necessary. Keep in mind that this user has seen your ad before, so seeing it for a second or third time will reinforce your message.
Aside from using the same visual cues, you should also move the customer along the marketing funnel. He must feel familiar with your brand without being irritated by it. Remarketing is a whole different beast; learn more about it in our Remarketing Guide to help increase conversions.
It is important to note that the Mere Exposure Effect most of the time cannot be quantified on its own. If you use focus group discussions, you'll find out that it has a stronger effect on creating an overall recall of an image, idea, product, or brand. But that's for long term goals.
If what you offer is fleeting and requires immediate results, then this strategy might not work on its own. You can utilize the Familiarity Principle as mentioned in the native advertising examples, but you would need to pair it up with other marketing strategies such as the Urgency Principle or the Curiosity Principle for it to work.
The MEE is not responsible for all product sales, but it can help increase the success of advertising campaigns. This is why people say that the Mere Exposure Effect is only “half true”. You can’t easily and immediately measure its success in improving your marketing campaigns; but if you stick with it long enough, you would be able to reap its benefits.
Now that we are in the 21st century, a lot of things have significantly changed, but the effectiveness of the method is still pretty much the same. As we, as humans, have evolved through centuries, so have the technologies available to us. With the ubiquity of information available to us nowadays, it’s surely easier to use the Mere Exposure Effect to our advantage.