Death metal and rainbow balloons: Why it pays to break conventions

Conforming to category norms may seem like the safe thing to do but it won’t make people remember your brand.

If you were a death metal fan living in California in 2015, you might have been keen to get your hands on tickets for the Bay Area Deathfest 2, after seeing this amazing line up.

As I’m sure you’ll have noticed, one band’s logo stands out like a sore thumb. And because this band is so distinctive, chances are you’d remember them and head on over to check out their set. If grindcore is your thing.

Psychologists have a name for the bias at work here: the ‘von Restorff effect’, named after postdoctoral student Hedwig von Restorff. Her experiments in the 1930s were among the earliest evidence to show that the things we notice are the things we remember. It is also known as the ‘isolation effect’.

Studying at the University of Berlin, von Restorff investigated factors that impact memorability. In one study, participants read through a long list consisting of sets of letters, interrupted by one set of digits. For example: pqr, rjs, cnm, rrb, mkw, 153, pol. After a short pause, the participants were asked to remember the items. The results showed that items that stood out, in this example the set of digits, were most recalled. So, being distinctive gets you remembered.

Breaking with norms

There’s something else notable about the Party Cannon logo. Not only does it literally stand out – with its distinctive, attention-grabbing colours – it also stands out because it utterly flouts the category conventions. Instead of Satan-inspired spider-web lettering, Party Cannon have gone for childlike rainbow balloons. The complete opposite of death and terror.

And this refusal to align with prevailing conventions suggests a certain chutzpah.

If you behave conventionally, you’ll become invisible and it’ll do little for your standing.

Psychologists have a name for this too: the ‘red sneaker effect’, so called because of the experiments it was based on. Essentially, it describes the fact that we tend to attribute high status to those who break with conformity.

The phenomenon was observed by Francesca Gino, a behavioural scientist at Harvard Business School. She examined the relationship between the dress style of participants at an academic conference and the number of articles they had published. And she realised that the smarter the attire, the fewer academic articles published. The scruffiest attendees were the most widely published authors. She argued that this was far from a coincidence – you need a degree of status to be able to flout convention.

But do people equate nonconformity to status in real life? Well, yes. In a 2014 study, Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino and Anat Keinan asked 159 respondents to rate the status and competence of a professor, based on a short description of them.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of four descriptions, where the professor either conformed (‘He typically wears a tie to work and is clean-shaven’) or did not conform (‘He typically wears a T-shirt to work and has a beard’). The professor was also attributed to either a prestigious or non-prestigious university.

Respondents rated the nonconforming professor as 14% more competent than the professor described as conforming.

The ‘safest’ ads are at greatest risk of going unnoticed

Real status matters

However, importantly, the results only held true for professors working at the prestigious institution; the nonconformist professor at the low-ranking university was rated as 8% less competent than the conformist at the same institution.

So, the red sneaker effect is mediated by the perceived standard of that individual; when substandard, the red sneaker effect can work in reverse.

What does this all mean for marketers?

At the moment, many marketers cling to category convention. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. If you behave conventionally, you’ll become invisible and it’ll do little for your standing.

Far better to stand out. You’ll be remembered. But more than being remembered, breaking category norms can boost your status too. Just check that you hold a degree of status in the first place.