Neuromarketing Insights on the Familiarity vs. Novelty Debate
Published on: February 23 2024

Marketers often debate whether communications should feel familiar or novel. This dilemma spans branding, packaging design, and advertising. Should marketers make things easy to recognise and understand through familiarity? Or should they jar people’s perceptions with novelty and disruption? Neuromarketing, with its psychological understanding of perception and attention, offers useful insights.

The case for familiarity

First, the need for novel disruption may have been exaggerated. One very plausible theory for how a lot of advertising works is that of low involvement processing, which posits that people don't need to pay high levels of attention to advertising in order for it to work. In fact, there are some downsides when people are too consciously focused on advertising, as it engages their critical facilities and they may become more skeptical towards the messages. Instead, advertising probably mostly works simply through the power of repetition in both building memories and reinforcing connections between a brand and particular feelings and associations. Hence making the choice to go with that brand in the future feels natural and easy. This is covered extensively in the book 'Seducing the Subconscious' by advertising man turned academic Robert Heath [1].

The Low Involvement Processing model posits that consumers often engage with advertisements and brand communications passively, without high levels of attention or cognitive engagement. According to this model, the effectiveness of advertising lies not in the depth of consumer involvement or the persuasiveness of the message, but rather in the repeated exposure and the subtle associations it builds over time. This repetition helps to embed the brand in the consumer's memory, making brand choices feel more natural and less scrutinized, even when the consumer is not actively focused on the advertising content.

The mere exposure effect

The mere exposure effect is a well-studied effect in psychology. It shows that simply through exposure to something, it becomes more familiar and  we tend to like it more. There may be an evolutionary explanation to this: things we've encountered before that haven't harmed us, have proven that they are benign. But it may also have more of a cognitive explanation: the more we are exposed to something, the more we have previously processed it, the easier it is for us to understand it the next time we see it. So it requires less energy for us to process. This also jibes with another phenomenon: that repeated exposure to a proposition makes it feel more true to us. This cognitive explanation is also consistent with findings that other features that increase processing fluency, such as making a tagline rhyme, also make it feel more true. 

Deeper processing

However, it's not always preferable to minimize the cognitive load of a piece of communication: one model of memory, the levels of processing model, shows that when we process things more deeply, i.e. when we think about them more, they can also form stronger memories. Thus by making someone pay more attention to a particular message by engaging deeper processing, they may be more likely to remember it. However, this does rely on them being sufficiently motivated to expend the effort. 

Visual stand-out

There are other known reasons that being more disruptive can be effective. The phenomenon of visual saliency shows that items that visually contrast with their environment are more likely to be looked at. This can be helpful in making packaging stand out in a retail environment or in visual displays such as posters, although designers still usually need to work within the range of colors associated with the product category.

The formula for avoiding boredom

The ultimate answer to the dilemma of novelty vs familiarity may be that one needs a blend of the two. One way that this has been shown to be effective is in popular music. With popular music we tend to love repetition. And, like a fractal, the repeating patterns within music can occur at multiple levels: rhythms, hooks and choruses, for example, all repeat. But we only love repetition up to a point. Too much repetition bores us, we become habituated to it. Psychologists have long known about this effect. It's sometimes called 'extinction of response'. 

For example, if you play a loud noise to a mouse it will have a startle response. But if you play it frequently enough, eventually the mouse stops becoming startled. We’ve all noticed that background noises, such as a ticking clock or roadworks outside our window, can be very noticeable at first, but we soon become habituated and stop noticing them. However, if you inject some periodic novelty into the repetition, that prevents the extinction or habituation from happening. And this ratio of novelty to repetition has been precisely defined: If we think of each repeating element as a letter, then this sequence has been shown to optimize the combination of repetition with novelty: 


Interestingly, this ratio of novelty to repetition not only keeps mice startled for the longest amount of time without triggering habituation, but it is also found in music from multiple cultures around the world [2].


The neuromarketing lens reveals that the familiarity versus novelty debate is not about choosing one over the other but understanding how to harmonize them to craft messages that resonate yet captivate. 

Of course, brand managers are expected to use their own judgment to decide when they might need to turn the dial more towards being attention-grabbing or disruptive. If their brand has become stale it might just need the jolt of novelty or reappraisal by consumers to re-energise it.

If part of the effectiveness of repetition is its ability to make things easier to process, then good thoughtful design can also enhance fluency while still remaining novel and interesting. In other words, good design can strive to communicate ideas in a simple manner that minimizes the cognitive effort needed to decode them, while still injecting some novelty into the experience. 

On those occasions when brand managers know that consumers are more motivated to think carefully about a topic, greater complexity can increase engagement.

There may not always be as perfect a formula for when and how much to inject novelty into marketing communications as in the music example. But by being aware of the psychology behind how it works and the inevitable tradeoff between familiarity and novelty, brand managers can make more informed choices. 


[1] Heath, R., 2012. Seducing the subconscious: The psychology of emotional influence in advertising. John Wiley & Sons.

[2] Research on habituation and repetition in music is described in chapter 3 of: 

Thompson, D., 2017. Hit makers: How things become popular. Penguin UK.