“To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising”

Five different phones, of various age, to show how they originally looked like a phone and then moved to a full screen.
The evolution of devices, particularly the iPod/iPhone evolution, is a popular example of the MAYA principle. “Mobile Device Evolution” by Adam Selwood, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

This week, I was skimming readings and came across Ivy Ackerman’s presentation at the 2016 PSFK Conference, where she discusses the “High-Low Dining” concept, namely putting high end restaurants in surprising “low” areas and low-end food in “high” settings. For example, she highlights Sadelle’s New York Bakery, where you have to make a reservation to dine on….bagels, in a high end setting.

MAYA Principle

This trend makes perfect sense through the lens of Raymond Lowey’s “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” (MAYA) principle, that the Atlantic Magazine writer Derek Thompson summarized beautifully in his article about what makes things cool, “[Lowey] said to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”

So Sadelle’s made the bagel surprising. And people are loving it.

Think about how logos evolve; as one of my colleagues pointed out, the Starbucks logo has changed very gradually over time, so gradually that most people didn’t really even register that it happened.

I’m personally a sucker for novelty kitchen items (please don’t buy me any though, I have plenty!). Why do I love them so much? Most likely because they’ve taken something familiar and made it surprising, like these matryoshka dry measuring cups, which I love so much I won’t even use them for measuring things. So yes, this trick even works on marketers, or at least, it works on this one.

When I think about our work in open educational resources (OER), this also explains the popularity of expert-written, peer-reviewed, fully developed resources with print copies readily available. OER is so much more than a book, but basically, we’ve made it look like a book. We’ve taken something surprising, and made it familiar.

Contemplation questions

  • Are you working on something that’s surprising or familiar?
  • How could you apply the MAYA principle to your work?
  • Can you think of products or services that you love or hate that the MAYA principle may be influencing?





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