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Singing a New but Familiar Tune

How do people make decisions between the familiar and new and surprising? System1 Research presents a study using Predictive Markets to predict the winners for the 2017 JUNO Awards in Canada.

We tap into our System 1– the fast, instinctive and emotional – part of the brain for more than 95% of our decisions. Our minds are constantly deploying shortcuts and hacks to get from point A to B with as little thinking as possible. When it comes to preferences in music, food, movies, or fashion, we tend to go with what is familiar and comfortable because it’s a fast and easy choice. We call this the familiarity heuristic – when the familiar is favored over novel places, people, or things.

But what happens when the new and surprising is favored as well?

Case in point: back in February 2017, System1 Research and Sklar Wilton collaborated on a study using Predictive Markets to predict the winners for The JUNO Awards that would take place in April 2017. These awards were created to celebrate and promote Canadian music and artists, the likes of which now hold international fame and familiarity more than ever – think Drake, The Weeknd, Grimes, Justin Bieber, Arcade Fire, etc.   

Just how well could a large crowd predict the winner for three major categories: (1) Artist of the Year, (2) Single of the Year, and (3) International Album of the Year? Bigger picture, would Canadians predict what was familiar to them or new and surprising?

Using System1’s Predictive Markets solution, we surveyed a large group of Canadians online (500 people per category) the month before the awards aired.    

How it worked was simple. The participants played a money betting game, where they were asked to imagine betting on the talent which would win that category. Let’s take Artist of the Year, for example, where the crowd had to bet up or down on Shawn Mendes, Drake, Alessia Cara, Leonard Cohen and The Weeknd. They identified a clear – and familiar – winner in each category: (1) Drake for Artist of the Year, (2) Shawn Mendes’ Treat You Better for Single of the Year, and (3) Coldplay’s Head Full of Dreams for International Album of the Year.

In awards chosen by juries, though, the familiar pick doesn’t always carry home the prize. So the study picked up on some new and surprising bets, too – The Strumbellas’ Spirits for Single of the Year (new) and Leonard Cohen for Artist of the Year (surprising). The Strumbellas only formed in 2008, getting their start playing in farmers’ markets around Toronto. The band had not experienced much international fame until the release of Spirits off their fourth studio album, Hope, which earned them a JUNO nod. The surprising bet was Leonard Cohen, who was a posthumous nominee with a career spanning nearly 50 years ending with the release of his 14th and final studio album You Want It Darker in October 2016.

The reactions to these two nominees got us thinking: Could a posthumous nominee and a scrappy indie folk band win over the likes of familiar and popular Drake and Shawn Mendes?

The awards aired on April 2, 2017, and we eagerly tuned in to see if our predictions lined up. Coldplay’s Head Full of Dreams took the prize for International Album of the Year, just like the crowd predicted. For Artist of the Year, Leonard Cohen’s legacy was enough to pull him above international superstar Drake, and Cohen was posthumously awarded Artist of the Year. And in the case of Single of the Year, up against hard hitters like The Weeknd and Shawn Mendes, scrappy indie folk band The Strumbellas pulled it off and won big for their hit single Spirits. In those categories, our pick for the new and surprising winner claimed victory.

Let’s dig a little deeper into why. The music of The Strumbellas gives people familiar feelings of uplift and joy, similar to the sentiments we heard from the crowd about established bands like Coldplay, but in a new, fresh, and youthful way. In the case of Cohen, his fifty-year career had helped him build great familiarity, and his death had brought him back into people’s minds, with an album themed around mortality providing an element of surprise and distinctiveness. So while The Strumbellas and Cohen both brought an element of familiarity to the table, it was their distinctiveness from other nominees that elevated them.  
In close, the three JUNO category winners were not only the most familiar but a blend of familiar and also new and surprising talent. And this tallies with what psychologists are finding out about innovation itself. As humans we have a “gut liking for the familiar”, so when something new and surprising is offered to us, it needs to be wrapped in familiarity. It’s what product designers call “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” design, and what marketers call “Fluent Innovation” – making something new feel immediately familiar. According to System1 and Sklar Wilton, the sweet spot for this kind of success is 80% familiar, 20% new. Hit that target and your audience is more likely to accept the surprising novelty – and just as with The Strumbellas and Leonard Cohen, they may well choose it over more established options.

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