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The power of Habits

Updated: May 21, 2020

We share a number of clients with Total Media, and their sister behavioural planning agency Behave.The latter have just started a series of behaviour science podcasts which are well worth checking out.

The first covers the power of habits, and you can here if you have 30 mins spare.

But if not, I've pulled out some handy highlights…

We are creatures of habit, and follow engrained behaviours because it makes our lives easier

For brands, habits are both good and bad...

  • Good for locking in existing consumers (you just need to find simple ways to reinforce existing behaviour).

  • Bad when it comes to attracting new consumers, as you have to not just break existing habits that tie them to other brands, but form new ones which bond them to you.

(to editorialise on the latter, this is why price promoting is a weak change trigger as it has no inherent habitual value: often switchers will just switch back, and all you end up doing is pulling forward purchases on the cheap from your existing consumer who would have bought anyway)

There are some key occasions/events where people are more open to establishing new habits that brands can tap into…

  1. Fresh starts: we are more likely to try new things at the beginning of the year/month/week.

  2. Life changes: major life events trigger all sorts of new habit forming, and can make us open to changes completely unrelated to the event in question (think births, marriage, kids starting school/leaving home, big birthdays, new job moving house).

  3. 9-enders: having a birthday that ends in a 9 is a huge spur for behaviour change of all kinds (membership of Ashley Madison apparently confirms this).

These can all be really handy for media targeting, particularly on line, but from a creative perspective it's important not to be too obvious in what you say. If you look like a stalker it can be counterproductive and antagonise, which we all know from having ads follow us around the internet. It's much better to be subtle/subliminal, and let people draw their own conclusions.

Implementation intention (getting people to be really specific about planned behaviour) and public commitment (going on record about it with others) is important for locking in habits…and encouraging this type of behaviour in comms can be more effective than just speaking to motivations/benefits.

Rather than try to establish completely new habits/behaviours (which is hard), it is often easier to piggyback existing actions, making adoption much easier (example: people don’t check batteries in smoke alarms, so London Fire Brigade got them to do this at the same time as clock changes in the spring and autumn).

Having triggered an action (as above) it is more effectively embedded if there is an immediate ‘physical’ reward and a mechanic for repetition (from personal experience, creating ‘ritual’ with some emotional or symbolic meaning is more powerful still).

For those that are interested, here is something I wrote a few years ago on ritual which, having just re-visited, makes some interesting points if I say so myself...

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