It Wasn’t About the M&Ms
November 28, 2016 by Maria Ford
About 5 days into my 2-week Summer train ride across Russia, I started feeling anxious. Inside the train, everyone spoke English – but outside, no one did. And there were no signs in English, either. I was being bombarded by sounds and sights that were unfamiliar. Even the things that I would normally take for granted – like being able to decipher a simple directional sign or billboard – were a new challenge. All the food we were eating was unfamiliar as well, in that it was all prepared and served differently than what I am used to. And, I had very little control over the food, whereas I am used to making my own meals all day, every day (I rarely eat out).
Although I had expected to have the experience of a stranger on this trip, nothing prepared me to deal with it. My brain tried to adjust to the anxiety in an interesting way. At a brief train stop, I looked out at the vendor kiosks and absolutely CRAVED something recognizable. Something sweet, something chocolate!
Lots of things LOOKED familiar – there are only so many ways to package cookies and chocolate bars. And yet, I couldn’t read any of the packages. I had already learned it was nearly impossible to communicate that I needed gluten-free food. While people generally understand the concept of “no bread”, they would still bring me cookies, or things wrapped in pastry, and pasta, or with sauces thickened with flour. So what I needed was something safe and certain. And FAST! because nothing stops a Russian train from keeping on schedule (in fact, one of our train’s Russian staff actually got left behind at a station and had to taxi to the next stop).
Thankfully, I quickly found my magic solution: M&Ms! I bought a few bags of peanut M&Ms and scurried back to the train to relax. It was pleasing to LOOK at the candy package because I could read it. Well, not any of the fine print, but the important thing – the name – was immediately recognizable. It was pleasing to OPEN the package, anticipating the familiar smell and flavour that would follow.
But, the experience became distressing almost right away. Why? Because the colours of M&Ms in Russia are not the same as the colours in North America. I had already experienced something similar with yogurt in Russia – another deceivingly “safe” treat for me to eat … except that in Russia they put grain in yogurt (also prunes and chocolate – who knew?!). So I had had to spend some time explaining to my cabin attendant (with the help of a translator) that he could not bring me yogurt with barley in it.
But, I digress. The M&Ms included a golden/peachy colour that was not quite yellow, not quite orange. I had never seen that colour of M&M before. They tasted the same and yet I found myself feeling exasperated and anxious and tired and near tears because they weren’t the “right” colour. I knew it was ridiculous. I was conscious of the psychological processes of the “outsider” that I was experiencing. I was even trying to talk myself into being reasonable: It’s only been 5 days, you’re surrounded by English tourists, all your needs are being taken care of, imagine what life is like for an immigrant and suck it up, sister!
But I still felt what I felt. And this little, very “first-world” experience got me thinking about the power of familiarity and its importance in marketing. Suddenly, I understood why a North American might rejoice at the sign of McDonald’s Golden Arches.
And that brings me to the moral of my story; that is, what we can learn from my experience of being an outsider and how we can apply it to marketing.
- Often, companies want to get really creative in their marketing. They may want a really cool website design or function that they saw somewhere recently, for example. But this often backfires for usability reasons – we’re familiar and comfortable with how corporate websites work, and we bring a series of expectations to them. Anything that deviates far from those “norms” demands the user to give extra time, effort, and attention to using your site…and often, they simply can’t be bothered.*
- Sometimes, we think that we need to be different to stand out – but that’s not a rule. In my story, M&Ms stood out because they were familiar. Is everyone else in your industry trying to compete with one another by being the most innovative, the most creative, the most unusual? Perhaps there’s another opportunity for you to stand out by being really good at providing comfort. Or perhaps the best way to lead in your space is to first master delivering on expectations, then leveraging that trust to convince users and customers to join you on a new journey.
There’s good research in behavioural psychology, neuroscience, and user experience design to back me up. As we mentioned in a previous blog, “Once we’ve assigned something to a particular category, it’s mentally strenuous to reclassify it. This is one reason brand extensions often fail. Harley Davidson perfume, Coors spring water, and Bic underwear were all real products that failed largely because they didn’t fit the category people associated with those brand names.”
* This type of argument is often countered with another that goes something like this. “Well, look at Apple! They made a computer/laptop/smartphone/tablet/music store that was totally new and different and revolutionary and everyone loved it and now it’s the standard!” That’s true. Apple also invested in being a user experience design company, and created features and functions based on extensive research and testing into how users thought and how they functioned. Apple gave us something we didn’t necessarily know that we needed – but which felt comfortable and familiar right away.
Think, too, of the Windows operating system – it mimics something that (was) familiar to new home PC users 20 years ago: a paper-based, desk-based system of organization and filing.
More recently, I’ve been thinking about self-driving cars – specifically, why do they look like cars at all? They could be anything! They could be offices or bedrooms or party rooms. But the self-driving concept is so new, so extreme, that the car companies are giving us something familiar so that we’re willing to try it, before opening the flood gates of possibility.