Are new ideas always better?

Why is China so keen on copycatting? One theory is that it’s the result of cultural conditioning. China values imitation, not invention – rote learning is the established mode of learning, and artistic disciplines such as calligraphy and painting require the student to copy endlessly before being permitted even the slightest divergence from established stylistic convention.

We tend to think in the West, often with some degree of smugness, that China’s love of imitation is in reverse proportion to our own cultural affiliation with originality.  That’s a load of rubbish. In truth, originality is a relatively new idea, finding popularity in The West as recently as the late 19th century. Nearly 70% of all counterfeit goods are manufactured in China, the world capital of copycatting.

Southeast Asia may not be in the same league, but even Singapore, with its relatively advanced IP (intellectual property) laws, is not immune to the cult of copying. For instance, check the image above. Who is copying whom in this delightful array of prawn-based snacks?

A casual walk down the aisles of Cold Storage or Fair Price reveals the same situation being played out in every category from fruit juice to frozen food: a celebration of the category conventions at the price of brand distinctiveness.

If it’s so new, then original thinking can’t be a natural human behavior. In his presentation during a recent conference, James Hurman,  founder and principal of New Zealand innovation agency Previously Unavailable, drew a positive correlation between original ideas and persuasiveness. We are more likely to reappraise and accept an idea if it’s mode of delivery is unfamiliar. Conversely, our “ideas immune system” blocks out even the freshest of thinking if its presentation is past its sell-by date.

In short, we are pre-programmed to resist original thinking.We fear change, unless it directly benefits us.

But divergent ideas knock us out of the stupor of our autopilot behavior. They disarm us. Then they persuade us to buy a bottle of shampoo, or a dated brand of aftershave, or a bottle of rum. It’s the one-two sucker punch.

But that autopilot behavior can be our best friend in brand design. If your task is to evolve an established visual identity, retaining recognition is paramount.

The “ideas immunity system” is something to leverage, not fight against. That’s because unless your intention is to force reappraisal, you want any visual evolutions to be subtle. New and fresh can be the enemy. Just ask the people behind Gap’s crowd-sourced logo. Or the people who dreamt up Jar Jar Binks.

Effective communications need to be noticed before they can be understood. But sometimes, great design is most effective when it’s not noticed at all. The trick is not confusing the two.

In other words, brand design is a bit like Star Wars. Nobody likes the new stuff. We just want what we know, done better.

The writer is Katie Ewer is strategy director at JKR.

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