Familiarity Breeds Contempt

One entertainment industry reality that frustrates me greatly is its bandwagon belief that just because our interest exceeds their expectations for one offering (say for instance “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) that we would like to see another half-dozen or so knockoffs of the same film, television show, play or musical, etc. This copycat syndrome seems to be even more prevalent during tougher economic times when those with the purse strings become more focused on investing in a “sure thing.” Some of the year-end reviews in various newspapers and magazines, however, allude to an apparent franchise fatigue in which the public is showing a declining interest in simply being offered more of the same.

Associations and corporations would be wise to heed this call. At face value it seems to make sense to aim for the middle during tougher times. Don’t do anything to shock your market: simply offer bread and butter products and services that are less risky, more palatable. While pursuing this strategy may yield short-term results that seem desirable it frequently undermines the long-term viability of an organization’s brand and credibility with its customers and stakeholders.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefit of investing more in marketing and product development during lean economic times. Just as the entertainment industry is suffering from franchise fatigue, so are many associations and companies suffering from familiarly fatigue. We all know the old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Perhaps the reason some people are questioning the relevance of their professional associations is because all we are being offered is more of the same, and we weren’t particularly excited about it the first time it was on the menu. You see the symptoms everywhere: bland annual meeting formats and content, magazines and periodicals that fail to excite or engage the readers, interesting products and services stalled in an approval pipeline that keeps them from coming to the membership in a timely fashion. Customers and members are vast wells of enthusiasm just waiting to be tapped into by innovative products, programs, and services. We want something to get excited about.

You can’t blame association leaders (or corporations for that matter) for being confused. When we had money to burn we often spent it willingly on resources, products, and programs that we considered neither incredibly valuable, nor inherently offensive. This purchasing behavior bloated meeting attendance and product sales and set a false standard for success that is now being corrected by our leaner financial resources.

But capturing more interest and involvement form members and customers can still be done. We must become more adept in our organizations at “combining familiarity and excitement,” one of the seven principles for communities of practice. (Source: Cultivating Communities of Practice by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder).

Case in point: the significant increase in consumer purchases of plastic gift cards. Time was that any self respecting gift givers saw the gift certificate as one of the most impersonal selections you could make … it was a choice of last resort. But the plastic gift cards are seen as having cache and often are very appreciated by recipients. This is a classic case of combining the familiar (gift certificates) with some excitement (attractively designed plastic cards). I kept hoping one of the many professional associations I belong to would offer gift cards for the holiday season, but alas, no such luck.

As we enter this new year, we must resist the impulse to so quickly go with the most common denominator, the safe bet speakers, the sure thing offerings. Sure it is a bit more risky, but such risk is what ultimately will serve our members and customers well. Only offering more of the same is the surest way to guarantee a more rapid advancement to the next stage of irrelevance.