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A Hard Habit to Break?

Fold your arms. Yes, you did read that right. Fold your arms, quickly and firmly as if you were a three year old who hasn’t got their way. Which arm is on top? OK, now fold them the other way…go on. Firstly that takes a lot more thinking about doesn’t it, but secondly it is nothing like as comfortable is it?

Welcome to the world of breaking habits.

As a marketer, unless I am working with a unique and novel invention, or someone in a totally new situation, I am usually going to have to get any prospective customer to change their behaviour before they will buy the product or service I am promoting. If I want you to use a specific firm of accountants, or buy a different brand of ink cartridge or shop at an alternative supermarket, I have to break you away from your current provider in order to do that.

Traditionally, most of us are very loyal consumers eg until 10 years ago hardly anyone changed the bank their current account was with. Now the market place is beginning to really open up with easier comparisons, constant demand for value and faster changes in technology, fashion and trends. So, the market place is open…but is your mind?

Habits are simply behaviours we have learned over time. They may be certain actions (like gambling or biting our nails) or they may feel a deeper part of who we are (like procrastination or low self-esteem). Of course it should be pointed out that not all habits are bad eg looking left and right before you cross the road, eating with a knife and fork etc.

For the purposes of marketing though, it is important to think about the behaviours we have when we go out to buy something. Many of us in the industry use the term ‘buying habits’ but how many of us actually stop and think of the real meaning of the phrase?

Recent research carried out examined the role of habit on consumers at a cinema. The findings were surprising. Although we may feel that the reason we frequently buy and consume popcorn during a film is because we are attracted by its freshness and ‘just popped smell’, in reality this turned out to be far from true. In fact, those who regularly consume popcorn at a trip to the cinema still consumed a full bucket of it even though it was a week old and decidedly stale. This was not the case for those who are not regular cinema goers, who complained about its taste and that it smelt off.

So, what does this mean for us? Well, it seems to demonstrate clearly that those who are in the habit of consuming something are less discerning about it than those who aren’t. However, it is actually more sophisticated than that as it also developed our knowledge about the importance of context on habits.

As fascinating as the psychology of habits is, its application for marketing is even more exciting. If we know why people buy in the way that they do, we have a better chance of getting them to switch to an alternative.

So, how do we break habits? Well, some are definitely easier to break than others as any ex-smoker will tell you. What we effectively need to do is re-programme the mind to carry out the new, desired behaviours rather than the old redundant ones. Not an easy task.

And it is more difficult still when we are trying to encourage someone else to do this as we are in the case of marketing. I want you to re-programme your mind to change your behaviour relating to a specific product or service. Don’t worry, no-one can get into your mind to do this without your knowing. Hypnotism is not a part of the marketing toolbox and subliminal advertising has been banned for many years now (not that it even works anyway, but that is a different story!).

So, the next time you find yourself questioning whether to stick to your usual brand of washing powder, coffee, car insurance etc or change, ask yourself what it is that has made you consider doing it. Because you are about to fold your arms the wrong way and it is neither easy nor comfortable. But it may just be worth the effort. It might become your new favourite. If nothing else, in identifying your motivation for changing you will certainly learn a lot about yourself and what is important to you!