How to Sell Almost Anything


Why do people like what they like?

Ancient philosophers and thinkers aligned themselves with a beauty of nature and repeating patterns. They devised the "golden ratio" (about 1.62 to 1) that explained the beauty of everything from seashells to pantheons. But as the ages have past, and others have found other truths. David Hume considered the search for "true" beauty to be absurd. He claimed beauty was subjective and personal, not a natural law or physical attribute. “To seek the real beauty, or real deformity,” he said, “is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter.”

Eventually scientist took up the quest, and in the 1960's Robert Zajonc made a discovery. In study after study, people preferred what they had seen the most. They liked what was familiar. Named the "mere-exposure effect", it has become one of the strongest findings in psychology. The finding is so strong in fact, that some think it is written into our genetic code. It's a simple explanation too: if you can recognize an animal or plant, then it hasn't killed you (yet).

But the reverse is also true. In those same studies, when the participants realized they were being shown similar objects on purpose, they disliked those objects instead. So, the power of familiarity is strongest when people aren't expecting it. So on one side we have the familiar, which make us feel safe. On the other side we have the new and exciting. This battle of familiar and discovery affects us on every level. 

Loewy believed that consumers are torn between a curiosity about new things and a fear of anything too new.
— Derek Thompson, The Atlantic
In the end it comes down to these two forces. Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design created this theory: consumers are torn between these two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. Thus we want products that are new and bold, but also instantly familiar. Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”, or maya. His most famous line, "to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising."