We live in a quantitative, data-driven world. Design, product development, and marketing decisions are all based on careful analysis of data that have been gathered through sales, market surveys, clicks, eyeballs, and focus groups. At the same time, there’s a clarion call for brands to innovate and differentiate.
It is well established that people resist change and don’t like being different. Yet brands are asking these people, who don’t even care for change, how they should change. It’s like asking a priest if atheism is a good choice. This doesn’t mean that brands should stop innovating and stay stagnant; that would lead to a slow death. It does mean that in many cases brands, and especially creative brand communications initiatives, overreact to what the data "is telling them." They are often asking the wrong questions and misinterpreting the meaning and significance of the data.
The simple fact is that it takes time for people to accept change, and if asked on the spot for their first reaction, it is likely to be negative. Now there’s nothing wrong with using statistical analyses and focus groups. In fact, they are extremely useful, especially for studying behavioral traits and figuring out what people need and want. The problems arise when a new concept is introduced to the sample or focus group. It’s perfectly valid to ask, "What do you associate with this brand?" but pretty counter-productive to ask, "What do you think of this brand refresh?"
People have a propensity to choose what they are used to because it makes them feel safe; it is recognizable. A lot of people get freaked out at the prospect of some brand agency changing the look of their morning O.J.: How will they be able to find it in the fridge?
The truth is that people are exceptionally good at adapting to change, and if done in the right way, it can be tremendously beneficial. We are, after all, the products of evolution. Approximately 100 years ago, Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management, studied production rates in factories and discovered that small changes in the environment and processes increased productivity. For example, if you switched on the light, people tended to work a little more efficiently, and if you then switched it off again, instead of going back to the previous productivity levels, efficiency would actually rise a bit more. So incremental change seems to be good for ROI.
Unfortunately, too many brands have a tendency to treat market data as law. So much so that it will override the expertise, experience, and intuition of designers, strategists, and other creative professionals. The result is usually something bland, traditional, neutral, and ultimately void of meaning and voice as if designed by committee.
Social media has made this process painfully visible and is now looked upon as a focus group in and of itself. We have seen brands publicly recoil in fear as soon as a group of online sourpusses proclaim their distaste. The "consumer," as represented by surprisingly design-conscious, self-promoting bloggers, doesn’t like the new logo, so the company gets second thoughts and surrenders.
People do eventually adapt to novel introductions, even after their strong negative reactions. Every time Facebook introduces a change in its user interface tons of people rally together in groups and protest loudly, proclaiming how awful it is and how inconvenienced their lives are. When the next update comes along, those same people are again complaining and saying that the current version, which they previously hated, is fine.
Likewise, when the BBC tested the groundbreaking comedy series The Office on audience focus groups, it apparently tested among the worst in the network’s history. The network decided to stick to its guns, and lo and behold, now it is a global, multimillion-dollar asset. People didn’t like it at first, because it was different from what they expected a comedy show should be. That is often the case with disruptive, game-changing products and services.
Change is necessary in order to stay relevant. Stagnancy leads to obsolescence. Brands need to be brave, bold, and confident in their intuition—and stop being slaves to data that doesn’t carry real meaning.