Marketers have an obsession. A deep, dark, self-destructive obsession.
What is the object of this obsession, you ask? In a word: newness.
Marketers are absolutely obsessed with new things. New platforms. New products. And, above all else, new ideas. If I had a nickel for every time a client asked me for a never-been-done-before “big idea,” I could buy a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.
But at the core of this obsession, you will find a delusion. And the delusion is that new, original, untested ideas are superior to old, familiar, battle-tested ones. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true: old ideas tend to outperform new ideas.
Well, although marketers fetishize newness, their customers usually have the opposite reaction: generally speaking, people are terrified of new things. And that’s very much by design – fear of novelty is an evolutionary adaptation.
The caveman who insisted on trying the new, colorful berry died of food poisoning. The cavewoman who tried petting the new, fluffy cat got mauled to shreds by a saber-toothed tiger. Humans who weren’t scared of new things went extinct. The cautious cavemen survived, and the paranoid inherited the earth.
The lesson is simple: new ideas can be dangerous.
It turns out this is as true in the world of marketing as it is in the world of berry eating. Consider the classic example of the Tropicana Case Study, or rather, the Tropicana Anti-Case Study.
A few years ago, the marketing minds over at Tropicana got tired of their old, familiar packaging – the iconic orange skewered by a straw. And so, like many clients, the Tropicana marketers decided to try something new, and change the packaging, from this to this.
You can guess what happened next.
Sales plummeted 50% in five weeks, the company lost $60 million dollars, and Tropicana was forced to revert back to its original design. Tropicana had re-learned a well-worn adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In other words, don’t take the risk of replacing an old idea that works with something unproven.
If that example is too anecdotal for you, consider the more “data-driven” argument laid out in a recent article in The Drum: “Why Research Shows You’re Better Off With Your Existing Ad Campaign.” Jeri Smith of Communicus examined 81 marketing campaigns and found that only 20% of the time newly introduced creative outperformed pre-existing creative.
We at LinkedIn have seen this in our own research. In collaboration with Edelman, we surveyed 1,200 CXOs to determine if and how sharing “thought leadership” drives business impact for companies. In one question, we asked CXOs what makes for good thought leadership. At the top of the list? Relevance. You had to travel much further down the list to find “originality.”
Marketers think ideas need to be original or new in order to be good, but customers routinely disagree. Buyers like useful ideas that work – they don’t care whether the insight is hot off the press or four thousand years old.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Ok, great, but what if I must introduce a new idea? What if I'm introducing a new product or a new company, or the old idea isn’t working?” Great question. For answers, I would direct you to an incredible new (!) book, called “Hitmakers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.”
Written by Derek Thompson, Senior Editor at The Atlantic, this book is about why certain ideas catch on while other don’t. Mr. Thompson’s thesis is simple: the most successful ideas are “surprisingly familiar.” In other words, if you want customers to like your new idea (movie script, washing machine, television commercial), make it seem like an old idea.
Here are examples of this in action:
• Henry Ford called his new invention the “horseless carriage,” to ground the scary, new idea of an automobile in the old, safe idea of a horse-drawn carriage.
• Steve Jobs called his revolutionary invention an “iPhone,” even though “phone” is actually the least popular function of the device.
• George Lucas couldn’t secure the rights to Flash Gordon, so he made “Star Wars” – Flash Gordan with a few clever twists.
So what is the key takeaway here? How can you apply this to your marketing?
Well, the first step is to rid yourself of the originality delusion. If your old marketing is working, keep running it until it doesn’t work anymore. Try your hardest to do the same thing every year, until it becomes familiar in the minds of your audience. Some say the most successful piece of thought leadership of all time is Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report. Is that a new piece of creative, or is it an old franchise that launched over 30 years ago?
If you must introduce a new idea, try to ground it in your old idea as Mary Meeker does year after year. She updates the data and examples in her Internet Trends Report every year. But the title, the report layout, and many of the macro concepts stay constant over time. If you look around, you’ll see that “surprising familiarity” is an ingredient in every great blockbuster, from Edelman’s Trust Barometer to The Avengers.
We know you like new things. We do too. Old things are boring. Nobody gets paid to develop old ideas. Nobody makes a big splash by continuing to do what their predecessor did. But remember that old things are old for a reason – they still work.