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When Habits Are Hard To Break

One of the factors influencing the choices we make are habits, which account for a significant proportion of our actions

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You make your way across concourse to the tube entrance, weaving your way through the crowds. There’s a longer queue in the ticket hall than normal as one of the escalators is broken. Everyone must walk down it as if it were a set of stairs. After patiently queuing for five minutes you’re finally at the top of the escalator, ready to go down. As you walk on to the metal steps you feel a momentary sense of unease and imbalance. But it quickly passes and on you go…

Can you remember the last time you walked up a broken escalator? It was disconcerting, wasn’t it? There’s a momentary loss of balance as you step on. Even though you know the steps are frozen you can’t help but step on too fast, thrusting your chest forward to compensate for the momentum you normally encounter.

This “broken escalator phenomenon”, described by Raymond Reynolds, from the University of Birmingham, occurs because through repeated experience we’ve developed a habit that we can’t fully override.

These habits account for a significant proportion of our actions, but they’re normally invisible; revealed only when our environment changes. Marketers need to adapt their communications to harness the power of consumers’ habits.

Nearly half of behaviour is habitual
The scale of habitual behaviour was quantified in a diary-based experiment conducted by two psychologists, Jeffrey Quinn and Wendy Wood, from Duke University. They gave 279 undergraduates watches programmed to buzz at set times. Whenever the alert was triggered, the students recorded in detail their actions at that moment. Across a range of areas from exercising to travelling, from eating to socialising, a full 45% of behaviours were habitual – the same decisions being made at the same time and place without full conscious thought.

This poses a problem for brands. How do you persuade people to buy your brand if most of the time they are on autopilot, thoughtlessly buying the same product as last time?

Habits are hard to break
Since habits are context specific, if a consumer’s environment changes the habits become loosened. For example, when consumers undergo a life event, their environment is changed enough to destabilize habitual behaviour. In case that term is unfamiliar, by life event I mean important changes, such as getting a new job, starting university, having a baby or getting married.

To quantify the importance of these moments, my colleague, Laura Weston, and I surveyed 2,370 nationally representative customers. We asked two questions. First, which life events they had undergone recently. Second, whether they had changed brands in ten specified categories. The categories straddled a diverse range of sectors: makeup, taxis, trains, coffee shops, lager, broadband, cars, mobiles, even opticians. We then cross-referenced the two sets of answers - more reliable than asking directly, as people often don’t know their motivations.

The results were conclusive. We investigated ten product categories and six life events for each, so there were sixty variables in total. For every single one, consumers were more likely to switch brands when they had undergone a life event.

It was a sizeable effect too. On average 8% of consumers switched brands in the selected categories when they hadn’t undergone a major life event recently. This rose to 21% among those that had. For three categories, those who had undergone life events were more than three times more likely to have switched brands.

How to apply this effect?
1. Shake consumers out of automatic behaviour:

The most direct approach is to draw consumers’ attention to a habit and jolt them out of their behaviour. The key to success is to target communications to the moment or place this automatic behaviour happens.

One successful example was Sainsbury’s in 2004 who realised much supermarket shopping was done in a daze. “Sleep shopping” as they termed it. Shoppers were buying the same items week in, week out – restricting themselves to the same 150 items, despite there being 30,000 on offer.

AMV BBDO, Sainsbury’s creative agency, went to great lengths to dramatise the extent of sleep shopping. They hired a man dressed in a gorilla suit and sent him to a Sainsbury’s to do his week’s shopping. They questioned shoppers as they were leaving the store and a surprisingly low percentage had noticed him. When shoppers are on autopilot it’s hard to grab their attention.

The agency tried to wake customers from their doze with their campaign, Try Something New Today, which used Jamie Oliver to inspire shoppers to be more adventurous. The ads were complemented by recipe cards in store, point-of-sale signage and a training programme for all 150,000 staff.

The campaign was a success - but disrupting habits is not easy. It worked for Sainsbury’s because, as a retailer, they controlled the environment in which the habitual actions occurred. This meant they could harness more point-of-sale material than any packaged good could ever afford. Additionally, they committed their entire, and sizeable, ad budget to the task. Habits are hard to break.

2. Target customers after they have undergone a life event

As habits are hard to break, brands should identify the rare moments when their grip becomes loosened, such as when consumers undergo life events. These moments are easier than ever before to identify because of the wealth of targeting data available. Facebook, for example, captures when users move to a new house or end a relationship.

Life events such as retirement shake up purchasing behaviour among older consumers just as powerfully as younger ones. This offers an opportunity for you to target the notoriously immovable older audience. Since they switch brands less often, the brief window just after a life event may be disproportionately important.

Finally, identify the life event most relevant to your category. The relative importance of life events varies by category. For example, for make-up, the crucial ones are when a consumer changes their social group – when they start a job, start university or get divorced. In these circumstances, buyers might need a confidence boost or take the opportunity to forge a new look.

3. Advertise at moments of reflection

Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield, psychologists from New York University and UCLA respectively, have identified a surprising moment when people are more likely to reappraise their lives – when their age ends in nine. They term this group: “nine-enders”. The psychologists analysed data from the 42,063 respondents to the World Values survey and found nine-enders were more likely to question the meaningfulness of their lives.

This moment of greater reflection occurs because we don’t think of time progressing in an even manner. Certain landmarks, such as approaching a new decade, assume disproportionate importance.

Jenny Riddell and I wanted to see if the findings held in the UK. We surveyed 500 nationally representative adults and found that nine-enders were 12% more likely to claim to think issues through thoroughly.

Interestingly, for marketers, this introspection often leads to action. Many nine-enders address their predicament by taking quite drastic steps. Having affairs for one thing. The psychologists analysed the ages of eight million male users of a website,, which specialises in arranging affairs for those in a relationship. (Its cheery slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.”)

They found that men were 18% more likely to have an affair when their age ended in nine. If men are more likely to reflect on their lives it’s therefore more likely that they realise something is amiss and take remedial action.

Unfortunately, the self-destructive behaviour doesn’t end there. Data, from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, showed a small, but statistically significant, increase in the number of nine-enders committing suicide.

Not all the behaviour is negative though. Nine-enders are just more likely to make big, decisive steps, good or bad, to change their lives. Data from the sports website athlinks ( showed that they were 48% more likely to enter marathons for the first time than other age groups.

If you need to get consumers to reappraise their behaviours, nineenders may be a particularly appropriate group to talk to.

4. Communicate before habits harden

An alternative approach is to focus communications before habits become entrenched.An example from social policy illustrates the benefits. In the US, David Olds, Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Colorado, developed an intervention, called Nurse Family Partnership, which provided nursing support to vulnerable mothers until their child turned two. Every fortnight a nurse would visit the low-income families and provide health, developmental and nutritional advice.

Rigorous testing has shown that this significantly reduced violence and improved educational results. However, these impressive results only occurred with mums having their first child. There was no effect on those having their second or third child as the habits were set by then.

This isn’t a one-off. The same scenario can be seen with government attempts to encourage small businesses to pay their tax on time.

According to David Halpern, CEO of the UK government’s Behavioural Insight Team: The problem… is that once someone gets into the habit of paying their tax late, or not paying it at all, it’s quite hard to get them to change. They’ve got used to receiving numerous letters, and “shoves” such as fines, rather than being nudged. It’s no surprise that one extra phone call or nudge will have less effect.

The benefits of targeting people before habits become fixed extends to commercial brands. They should give disproportionate emphasis to category entrants. So, for supermarkets, families with older children might be the biggest spenders, but the retailers should recognise a better long-term approach might be those shopping for groceries for themselves for the first time: such as students and first jobbers.

Another tactic that can be used by supermarkets, and retailers in general, to boost sales is to make their prices appear less painful. This doesn’t mean they must reduce prices, just that they need to take care when communicating them. That’s the topic for the next  chapter.

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book extract books Magazine 23 June 2018