Part 1: Familiarity bias and its implications for concept testing

The phrase, allegedly first coined by Geoffrey Chaucer in his work, Tale of Melibee in the 1300s, is related to knowing something so well that you can lose all respect for it. I started thinking about this as we kicked off our annual Mustard Music World Cup last week.

We started running our Mustard Music World Cup last year, as a bit of fun to engage us with songs that we may not know. We’re a diverse bunch when it comes to music: yes, we’ve got our fair share of 6 Music DadsTM, but we’ve got Disco Divas, rockers, RnB lovers and pretty much everything in between. Last year saw The Buzzcocks come out on top in the grand final against Queen, with Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) beating Bohemian Rhapsody.

Why does this matter? Well, I got thinking last week as this year’s first round draw was made. Yes, there were many familiar songs, but also many that I didn’t recognise, either by the song title or artist, or the song itself. It got me wondering whether songs that are more familiar to the ear are more likely to win than those that you’re hearing for the first time.

Now, if you take a song like Club Tropicana by Wham!, one of the first things you hear is the click of heels, and immediately you know what’s coming next. You’ll probably love it, being a fully-fledged classic of the 80s. But it may also evoke feelings of nostalgia or things you were doing at that time, all of which have the potential to make the song ‘stickier’ when it comes to favourability. Putting this alongside a song like ‘Goodbye Texas’ by Flat Worms (which I hadn’t heard until last week), seems to provide the George Michael / Andrew Ridgeley track with a distinct advantage that goes beyond the quality of the song itself.


People listening to music


Some of you might be asking what the hell this has got to do with research?

When it comes to concept testing, it’s easy enough to replicate this kind of experiment. The brain is wired to make associations with things that it recognises and triggers emotional reactions – this can be equally true of product concepts or brand messages. I always remember when Müller launched its Fruit Corner product into the UK in the 1990s.Who’d have thought that a twin pot of yoghurt and fruit compote would completely change the market? It’s probably not something that Ski was thinking about at the time. I’ve not seen the concepts of the product, but I wonder how it would have performed given the new nature of the product?

So, how do we go about minimising the risk of familiarity bias? In our experience, there are three critical success factors:

1. Ensure a consistency of concept design. An obvious one, but don’t run a concept test where the stimuli are at different stages of development. A fully fledged, established idea will always perform better than an early-stage sketch of a product.


2.  Use more words rather than fewer to fully explain what the concept is. Whilst this isn’t always great for a participant (having to read more to answer the question), it’s important that they fully understand what the concept is.


3. Communicate a clear consumer / business benefit. What’s in it for me from choosing this product? Is it a value play, something that makes things easier, something that’s going to stand the test of time or something else?

By following the above tips, we can avoid falling into the familiarity trap, and we might see more positive responses to Flat Worms, rather than just choosing Wham! each time.

With that, I’m off to listen to today’s top world cup tie. Blue Oyster Cult v George Michael anyone?