In one study on this effect, participants were more likely to rate food additives as being harmful when their names were difficult to say, as compared to when their names were easy to say.
Song & Schwarz (2007) If It’s Difficult to Pronounce, It Must Be Risky. Psychological Science
Michael Pollan, author of best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma said it so well when he told us to “beware foods whose ingredient names you can’t pronounce”. “Alpha-tocopherol”, “Ferric Sodium Pyrophosphate” and “Butylated Hydroxyanisol”, though all safe and approved by the US Food and Drug Association, don’t leave us with too much confidence as what’ll happen when we eat them.
This bias really all boils down to our innate desire for things we’re already familiar with. In a great study back in 1968, psychologist Robert Zajonc found the more we experience something, the more likely we are to like it.
So while the things we’re familiar with are often considered safe, new stimuli are associated with uncertainty and risk (Zajonc, 1980). If you think about it, we go through the familiarity bias all the time: when we make decisions on where to shop, what to buy when there, and whom to befriend and even date!
Familiarity is related to how easy we can process information. We find familiar things easier to process and understand than the unfamiliar. Further, social psychological research also finds that when we read a statement or message with ease, we tend to feel we’ve heard it before, therefore suggesting that it may be popular (e.g., Weaver, Garcia, Schwarz, & Miller, 2007). Given that human beings often “follow the herd” and believe in popular opinion for safety, it’s unsurprising that research shows that if we think of a statement as popular, it’s more likely to be accepted as true (e.g. Reber & Schwarz, 1999).
Our tendency to see difficult-to-process things as being riskier than those easily-understood has a number of product implications. Here are a few…
Key takeaways for decision-makers
Just keep it simple
Difficult to pronounce products or company names can make products and services seem unfamiliar and therefore create a negative outlook towards them. Your brand name is normally the first touchpoint that a new customer will have with you. A difficult-to-pronounce name won’t get the relationship off to a very good start, instilling a sense of confusion and uncertainty that may hurt the perception of your brand. For instance, though they make fabulous clothes, the name “BCBGMAXAZRIA” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. New start-ups in a competitive industry might not get away with such a name so easily…
For the love of content marketing
This bias has implications for businesses who haven’t yet leveraged the power of content marketing. While difficult-to-process content will be less shareable and popular, getting your content right by making it ridiculously easy to understand can influence people to attribute trust towards your content, prompting more likes and shares. Going further, it’s likely to increase trust of your overall brand. Think pithy, familiar and impossible to be confused by.
For the risk-averse
If you’re launching a new product in a risk-averse market, or if your industry has suffered from a fall in confidence (think Banking post-2007, or Supermarket meat in the wake of the horse-meat scandal in 2013), this is even more important. Regain trust by fostering familiarity in your marketing. Do not confuse people, especially when they’re critically undecided about your brand’s integrity.