The horrors of New Coke have not been easy for the American public to forget. We do not handle change well, especially when it comes to the brands that we've been conditioned to love. But did New Coke really taste that bad? And likewise, is the new Yahoo! logo really that atrocious? And is iOS7 really the flaming train wreck of a redesign that some folks are making it out to be? Or is the problem not within the product, but rather, within ourselves?
What's in a Brand?
The modern world is dominated by brands. Defined by the American Marketing Association as the "name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's product distinct from those of other sellers," brands got their start as a means of determining cattle ownership. Unique identifying marks were burned—or branded—onto the animals' hides with hot irons, and the tradition soon spread to all areas of commerce.
But brands don't just tell us that we're drinking Coke instead of Pepsi or reading Gizmodo rather than the Verge. They represent all the associated feelings and emotions we have with the product, sort of our overall concept of the brand. So, for example, think of the brands Microsoft and Apple. Just mentioning the company names is likely to dredge up a slew of positive (or negative) feelings, memories, and associations you have with those brands that, when taken as a whole, constitute the brand concept. This, as Norman H. Anderson argues in the Foundations of Information Integration Theory, is the result of both multi-sensory perception—how the product tastes, smells, feels, etc—and a bit of cognitive algebra that involves trying to make sense of these data inputs. "Emotional branding," as the practice is known, is far more potent than simply pointing out categorical differences between your product and a competitor's.
In fact, in a 2004 study examining the Pepsi Challenge—wherein people would supposedly prefer Pepsi over Coke in a a blind taste-test—researchers noted that a region of the brain associated with strong emotions lit up MRI scans far more when the subject was shown a Coke label over a Pepsi. However, patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage did not exhibit the same neurological response, and they consistently preferred Pepsi in the blind taste test as well. Remember kids—only people with brain damage drink Pepsi.
And once we form emotional connections with a brand, even if it's as benign as associating it with "quality," that brand can take on a life of its own. Known as the "brand personality," it can be anthropomorphized like the Geico gecko or Sonic the Hedgehog. It can span numerous products and entire industries like GE or CBS. It can even become a pop culture icon like Campbell's Tomato Soup or McDonald's Golden Arches. By projecting human traits and cultural ideals onto the brand, people form deeper emotional associations with the product, making them more likely to purchase it again. Marlboro's long running "come to where the flavor is" tagline, one of Phillip Morris' most successful ad campaigns of all time, for example, evokes thoughts of an American West filled with rugged cowboys—a powerful cultural touchstone for the US consumer. But moreover, these brand personalities allow consumers to differentiate between products even when they're virtually identical, like top shelf vodkas or produce (seriously, name a brand of bananas other than Chiquita).
An even deeper level of consumer-brand interaction occurs when the consumer is socially engaged—this is known as "brand participation." It's the difference between passively watching a Levi's ad on TV versus actively custom-designing a pair of jeans on the company website, or tweeting about how great you look in them, or posting selfies of yourself wearing them to Facebook. When a consumer actively engages with a brand, they develop a sense of ownership of that brand—and that can lead to issues down the line if that brand changes, even insignificantly.
We Hate Losing More Than We Love Winning
You have a choice. You could receive $100 right now or flip a coin with a 50/50 chance of winning $200. Which do you go for? The overwhelming majority of people will go for the immediate sure thing rather than the greater, delayed reward. And conversely, if given the choice between definitely losing $100 or flipping a coin with a 50/50 chance of losing $200, most people will actually take the coin flip despite the potential greater loss. This phenomenon is known "loss aversion."
Originally put forth by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their seminal 1979 paper on Prospect Theory, loss aversion is people's tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses over potential gains, and to become irrationally risk-tolerant when protecting their capital. Some studies have suggested that our negative reactions to loss impact our psyches twice as hard as the rush of making gains does.
Loss aversion also manifests itself in what's known as the "endowment effect." This is people's tendency to place a higher price on an item they own compared to an identical item that they don't—essentially, it's the added value of ownership. This is why people can't ever seem to get rid of items with "sentimental" value. As Dr. Gizem Saka of Psychology Today explains, the initial study that illustrated this effect worked as such:
Two groups of participants were asked to come to the laboratory. They were asked to sit in two separate rooms. Participants in the first group were endowed with a mug. In other words, the experimenter gave each person a mug, and told them that they now owned the mug. Participants in the second room, however, were just shown the mug. The experimenter in the second room stood in front of the room with the mug in his hands, not giving it to the subjects. Participants, however, were asked to inspect the item. The mug, by the way, had the college's insignia on it.
Participants in both rooms were given decision sheets and were asked to report the value at which they would sell or buy the mug. An endowed subject, with the mug in his hands, would report a "selling" price: I would ask $5 to sell the mug (willingness to accept). The second group would report "buying" prices: I would pay $5 for the mug (i.e. willingness to buy).
Endowment effect is the difference between willingness to accept and willingness to buy. In the initial study, the mean price sellers asked for was $5.78, and the mean price buyers were willing to pay was $2.21.
People's fear of loss and coveting of existing capital, when taken together, violate the Coase theorem—"the allocation of resources will be independent of the assignment of property rights when costless trades are possible"—and instead lead to a status quo bias, or strong and irrational preference for the current state of affairs. Numerous clinical and field studies have revealed that the status quo bias routinely plays a role in people's decision making.
Basically, a person will weigh the potential gains of switching from the status quo against the potential losses. But due to loss aversion, he or she will weigh the potential losses twice as heavily. And thanks to the endowment effect, he'll value his current capital twice as much as any potential future gains. It's a win-win situation for the status quo.
It's Not the Brand, It's You
So what the heck do these behavioral economic and marketing theories have to do with you freaking out every time iOS undergoes a UI redesign? Well, everything, actually.
Apple has spent decades building its brand from a home computing afterthought to one of the world's premiere fashion labels. It has carefully choreographed billion dollar marketing efforts to instill a core brand identity of clean, easy to use, beautiful products within the minds of consumers. "It just works," right? What's more, Apple's products aren't like McDonald's hamburgers—they aren't just 1,500-calorie widgets that are consumed and promptly forgotten until they give you the runs 20 minutes later. These are valuable devices that provide a host of services while flagging their user's financial superiority to the rest of society (see: Gold iPhones). Apple's phones are not just mobile computing platforms, they're status symbols, they're part of their owners identities.
So when iOS 7 trades in iOS 6's simulated depth for a flatter, cartoonishly-colored UI, of course all hell is going break loose. It violates the status quo, introduces an element of uncertainty—what's the new UI going to be like? Am I going to have to re-install all my apps? How do I even do that?!?—and results in the-sky-is-falling hysterics.
And yes, while some branding changes really are that bad—I'm looking at you Crystal Pepsi—most of the time you simply need to take a breath and realize it's really not as bad as you think.