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Second Nature Speaks

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In the early 1900s, most people did not possess a habit we take for granted today: brushing teeth. Claude C. Hopkins changed it forever. The way he made Pepsodent, a "frothy concoction called toothpaste", popular through unique campaigns helped introduce a new habit to millions of people and, along the way, made Hopkins a millionaire and a legend in advertising. He identified a ‘habit loop', which included a cue (‘film on teeth'), the reward (beautiful teeth and smiles) and a new routine (brush your teeth) to close the loop, and took Pepsodent from being known to less than 7 per cent of Americans to over 45 per cent within a decade.

The power of habit is just amazing. And advertisers like Hopkins have known it all this while. An Arab proverb says habit is the sixth sense that dominates the other five. And that's exactly what US journalist Charles Duhigg talks about in his interesting new book, The Power Of Habit. Duhigg probes how habits are formed, how they impact us and, most importantly, how they can be changed. In the process, he takes us through a range of examples.

Habits, says Duhigg, have always been second nature to us: we use them in everyday life, almost everywhere — home, office, college, etc. Studies show that 40 per cent of our actions come from habit. And for people in vocations such as marketing or governance, habit formation and change is a critical force to work with. Duhigg traces the early work done to understand habits and then works his way through showing how this is being used today. He shows how ‘habit loops' form and how understanding them becomes a basis for changing behaviour. Music is an interesting example. At present, we can identify patterns in the music that listeners like or dislike in a new tune. Specialist companies have developed algorithms for this so that ‘popular' tunes can be assembled. But habit formation (making people listen to a particular tune and like it, in this case) comes in later. Radio stations ‘sandwich' new tunes (previously tested for their power to be successful) as they are played on air along with already successful or familiar tunes resulting in the new tune gaining acceptance. Sounds complex? Not really. Target, a US retail chain, has already used analytics to look for buyer habits — and this is being done increasingly by retailers with access to large amounts of loyalty and transaction data. They can actually build a picture of shoppers' habits and even identify points where change can be induced.

For instance, a baby's arrival changes a family's buying habits. So, Target has identified the probability of shoppers being pregnant based on their buying patterns of products (combined with other data that they have collected on the shopper) and can use this to influence their shopping preferences. Starbucks uses habit training in its LATTE (listen, attend, take action, thank and explain) method in improving customer handling, giving it an edge in customer service in an increasingly difficult market.

In the US, during World War II, there was a need to ensure that the people at home (women and children) had the required amount of protein in their diet. A campaign to change habits identified that organ meat, which was seen a ‘down market' item, was subtly incorporated into traditional menus and recipes and, interestingly, after the war, prices for organ meat soared.

The book opens up a lot of new areas of thought on habit formation and identifies areas where researchers (both scientific and commercial) have taken it to. It also raises a few questions. Can we look at new data collection initiatives such as Aadhaar to change the lives of millions and the future of our nations by identifying habits and habit loops? Is there a threat of such data being used for sheer commercial benefits? If we are being ‘manipulated', do we know this? Or, hold, am I being suspicious by habit?

Badhe is a marketing and retail consultant

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 25-06-2012)