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How to make, break and shape consumer habits

04 Mar 2020  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
How to make, break and shape consumer habits

Almost half of our behaviour is made instinctively and consistently, writes William Hanmer-Lloyd - so how can brands get loyal customers to try something different?

Most adults know exercise is good for them and would like to do more, yet global studies have shown that between 36% and 55% of people fail to convert intention into action.

Interestingly, global research also suggests that if someone goes to the gym four times a week for six weeks it creates a new gym habit, meaning they are likely to sustain going to the gym in the future (which gives us all a target to aim for).

This is because of the power of habits. Research suggests that on any given day, 45% of our decisions are habitual – made instinctively and consistently. There is a huge opportunity here for brands. By tapping into habits a product can become embedded into consumer’s behaviour long term, driving frequent usage and purchase of their product from current customers and protecting their sales from competitors.

A famous example of a brand tapping into the power of habits is Febreze. When it was launched it had no scent and was marketed as a product to mask bad smells.

It was not successful.

But when Febreze added a nice smell and advertised the product as a spray to use at the end of cleaning – using the tagline ‘two sprays & we’re clean’ - it became very successful. This is because it created a new habit.

It was able to do this because it created a consistent trigger and reward for use. The trigger was when someone finished cleaning. The reward was the added nice smell, which customers came to associate with a cleaning job well done. By having a consistent trigger (people often finish cleaning – or at least people who aren’t me often finish cleaning) and reward, the product shifted from failing launch to a billion dollar brand.

Febreze is not alone here. Pepsodent was the first toothpaste brand to add a nice minty taste to reward cleaning, and the first to create a trigger by advertising that people should brush before bed and after breakfast (providing them with two daily triggers to use the brand).

Understanding habits can also help brands steal customers from competitors. It is extremely difficult to break existing customers habits. But research shows that during disruptive life events, such as getting married or divorced, having kids, starting a new job, or moving house, people are more likely to break habits and try new brands.

For example, the Universities of West England and Essex and the Department of Transport found that people who had got married were four times more likely to change cars than the population as a whole. And in Richard Shotton’s Choice Factory, a survey of 2,370 people showed that 8% of normal consumers switched brands recently, compared to 21% of consumers who had experienced a life event.

Life events create psychological uncertainty that requires a person to readjust and re-evaluate their current behaviour and consumption needs. When someone undergoes a life event it destabilises the environment they make decisions in, thereby disrupting their habits and causing more of their choices to be made consciously. Crucially this means consumer behaviour becomes more susceptible to change.

This is why David Halpern of the Behavioural Insights Team has said:

“Successful behaviour change is sometimes about intervening at the right time. If you contact people within three months of them moving into a new house behavioural patterns haven’t re-established themselves yet.”

Brands can use this to attract new customers who would normally not switch brands.

For example the energy drink brand Carabao launched by targeting consumers going through life events, such as getting a new job, getting married, having kids, or starting to train for a marathon. This is further reinforced by Mintel research, which shows that 92% of purchase in the energy drink category is habitual. This strategy helped them achieve the only successful energy drink launch in the UK of the last 10 years.

Achieving a stable and growing base of repeat purchase behaviour - or “loyal customers” - or driving new hard to gain customers, is the holy grail for all businesses and this is what habit delivers. Simply shouting louder and more often will not dislodge or disrupt a person’s habitual behaviour.

Nor will assuming that people are all hugely engaged and making conscious, fully thought-through decisions for all the purchases they make. By understanding the science behind habits, we can create new, long lasting customers and grow very successful brands.


William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning. And he has a podcast delving into behavioural science!

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07 Apr 2020 

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