MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable

First off, I’d like to wish you a happy new year! Here’s hoping 2017 treats you well; may you find what you seek.

To start this year off, I’m following up on last year’s “familiar with a twist” piece. As it so happens, an industrial designer named Raymond Loewy came up with a theory surrounding “familiar with a twist” in the 1950s. In fact, his ideas were so robust that, based on his theory, he was able to design numerous mid-century American icons. His firm produced the Exxon logo, the Lucky Strike pack, and the Greyhound bus. He designed International Harvester tractors, Frigidaire ovens, and even Air Force One. Loewy’s theory went like this:

He believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—MAYA. He said to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.

Spectrum of Cool
When things are too familiar, they make us bored, but when they are too different, they make us afraid. The optimal consumer experience sits in between boredom and xenophobia, where things are cool.

Working off of Loewy’s ideas, HBS professor Karim Lakhani notes that coolness (i.e. sustained consumer desire) derives. from something called “optimal newness,” the condition of being advanced but acceptable (MAYA). Lakhani says that “everyone dislikes novelty [but] experts tend to be overcritical of proposals in their own domain”; thus, to be optimally new, an idea must be familiar with a twist.

We see this movement towards the middle across domains. 

In music, a multitude of songs are built on the same chord progression (I–V–vi–IV) but have noticeable differences that make them fresh. This progression is the backbone of dozens of songs, including the Beatles’ “Let It Be”, Don’t Stop Believin’, The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, and No Woman, No Cry, among others. In fact, the musical comedy group Axis of Awesome created a mashup video called 4 Chords demonstrating the pervasiveness of MAYA in music.

MAYA also exists in baby names: parents seek to name their children something that is at once familiar but uncommon. Stanley Lieberson of Harvard explains that names evolve in steps, offering the example of the name Samantha rising in popularity from the 80s into the 90s and then collapsing when society reached “peak Samantha” (i.e. when the name became too common). Lieberson’s analysis also investigated the rise of the prefix “La” in African-American girls’ names, showing that various names in this family branched off of each other.

Finally, today, we see a turn in startups trying to appeal to the masses. Thus far, startups have used trickle-down economics to attack markets; they relied on adoption by wealthy, metropolitan consumers and used the high margins from those sales for R&D and other purposes. As Farhad Manjoo of the NYT states, “the rich subsidize the rest of us — were it not for the suckers who spent more than $10,000 on early versions of the Mac, Apple might not have survived to build the iPhone.”

Today, the trickle-down method is, in some cases, being up-ended by the mass market approach, especially in China and India. Companies like Xiaomi (a mass-market iPhone competitor) have decided that making lower margins off of many consumers is a more viable way of doing business. By following the MAYA principle, companies can introduce products that have wide appeal and thereby create quick and sustainable profits.

Also published on Medium.

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