Deep down, even the most cutting-edge consumers tend to have a soft spot for things they already know and love, Derek Thompson argues.

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There’s a common notion that consumers are endlessly chasing the latest and greatest thing — whether it’s a gadget, an entertainment option or even a type of home.

But real estate professionals shouldn’t lose sight of the psychological power of the familiar, Derek Thompson argues.

“To sell something surprising, you have to make it familiar,” Thompson said Wednesday at the Inman Connect real estate conference in Las Vegas. “But to sell something familiar, you have to make it surprising.”

It’s a subject that Thompson, a journalist for The Atlantic and podcast host for The Ringer, became deeply familiar with while pouring through research for his 2017 book, Hit Makers.

Thompson laid out his case that even when consumers think they want something new, they are often looking for something similar to what they already love.

“We have a deep bias for the familiar,” Thompson said. “Ninety percent of the time we listen to music, we are listening to a song we’ve already heard.”

Psychologists call this the “mere exposure effect,” Thompson said. By coming into contact with something frequently — a movie, a song, a style of clothing — people tend to like that thing more.

But what’s the secret to blending this finding with the fact that people do want new things, which do capture the consumer’s imagination?

The master of this type of nuanced approach, Thompson argues, was 20th century industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

Loewy’s iconic designs range from the classic Studebaker vehicles to the now-classic look of the American presidential plane Air Force One.

The designer’s contributions represented the cutting edge of the middle of the 20th century. Yet part of the reason they were so popular was because he never strayed too far from what consumers were used to seeing. 

Loewy said he chased the “most advanced yet acceptable” design for most of his projects. He credited this philosophy of striking this balance for much of his success.

So what does all this mean for real estate professionals?

Thompson thinks the research suggests agents should exhibit a “greater sensitivity” toward buyers’ tastes for novelty as they search for homes. 

Some people love new and original things — floorplans, facades and room types, to name a few. For these clients, playing up a property’s most unique or quirky features may be an effective strategy for getting a buyer on board. 

Other buyers may be wary of straying too far from a conventional look, Thompson said.

But nearly all people have at least some draw to both the new and the familiar, he said. Getting to know a client’s preferences can go a long way toward helping them find what they want.

Email Daniel Houston

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