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Brands need to reach consumers when their habits are in flux

02 Aug 2016  |  Richard Shotton 
Brands need to reach consumers when their habits are in flux

Richard Shotton explains why people are particularly susceptible to switching brands when they undergo a disruptive life event

eBay recently announced that by analysing online buying behaviour they can identify potential home buyers months before they buy a new house. This is of obvious value to brands who sell DIY, furniture or white goods but the opportunity should interest a far broader swathe of brands.

Moving house is a great moment for bands to target customers as a broad range of buying patterns are disrupted. Most of the time consumers are hard to influence as they make most decisions habitually; Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman estimates that 95% of decisions are subconscious.

This is a problem for advertising as how can consumers be persuaded to buy elsewhere if they're on auto-pilot?

One solution is to identify the rare moments when decisions are made consciously. Our research suggests that the short period after undergoing a life event is one such opportunity. By life events I mean major changes such as, amongst others, going to university, moving house, getting married, changing job or retiring.

Life events cause disruption to consumers' routines and environments. This destabilisation means that consumers are shaken out of their habits causing them to consciously weigh up their decisions, including purchasing ones.

Zenith's research proves the importance of life events

At Zenith we quantified the effect by asking 1,121 consumers two simple questions. First, which of nine life events had they undergone in the last year and second, had they tried a new brand in any of eight categories.

The results were striking. In every category people were more likely to have tried new brands if they had undergone a life event. For all product categories, bar one, the probability of trying new brands increased by at least 75% after a life event. And in over half the categories the trialling of new brands doubled.

Why are life-events so influential?

There are a number of explanations as to why the effect of life events is so significant. The prevailing psychological theory is that life events disrupt our patterns of behaviour.

This is important as most of our decisions are habitual; it's simply too time consuming to consciously process all our decisions. This automatic behaviour means it's hard for brands to cause re-appraisal.

However, when we undergo a life event it destabilises the environment we make those decisions in thereby disrupting our habits and causing more of our choices to be made consciously. Crucially our behaviour becomes more susceptible to change.

Whilst this psychological theory is compelling there could be a more mundane explanation. Most people are pretty promiscuous when it comes to purchasing. Whilst people have brand preferences, genuine brand loyalty is rare. So if you drink at Caffé Nero and move to an area without one you're unlikely to get in the car each time you need a caffeine hit.

Therefore undergoing a life event may cause a physical disruption alongside a psychological one. Either way it represents an opportunity for competitors to steal share.

In certain respects which of these theories is most accurate is irrelevant. We don't need to know the underlying reason to take advantage of the link between life events and brand switching.

Marketers' need to identify the most appropriate life event for their target audience. Luckily, digital data sources, like eBay Advance targeting, mean that serving messages to people around life events is easier than ever. Marketers that target these moments will reach customers more receptive to their messaging than normal.


Richard Shotton is head of insight at Zenith - follow him on Twitter: @rshotton


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