Friday, September 19, 2014

Influencing consumer habits - how to create habitual behavior

What are habits?


Form marketing perspective consumers have good and bad habits. To put it simply the habits are good if a consumer is buying from us and bad if they buy from the competitor. But what exactly are habits? Repetitive behavior is sometimes confused with habits, but there is a major difference: While repetitive behavior can easily be changed, the habits are difficult to break.

Habits are nearly automatic behaviors that occur repeatedly in consisted circumstances. Habits are strongly dependent on environmental cues, such as places, times of day, presence of particular people, preceding actions, state of mind et cetera. Habits are triggered by the clues we see in our surroundings (Verplanken & Wood 2006)[i], Verplanken & Faes (1999)[ii], Verplanken & Orbell (2003)[iii], Wood & Neal (2009)[iv], Holland et al. (2006)[v]. For example many people eat breakfast at home and read the newspaper at the same time. If they skip breakfast they will most likely skip the morning paper also.

Nearly automatic behavior means that consumers act without conscious awareness. Difference between repetitive behavior and habits is that repetitive behavior is deliberated each time, whereas habit is a nearly automatic response to situational cues. This is why habits are more difficult to change than just repetitive behavior.

Habits are formed when an action is repeated so many times in consistent circumstances that it becomes automatic behavioral response to situation. The combination of repetitive behavior, certain situations and nearly automatic response create habitual behavior:


The benefits and costs of habits from consumer’s point of view


Habits are beneficial for us because we can save time, energy and effort by acting habitually. Habits give also structure to our lives and thus give a feeling of safety and comfort. Furthermore, a habit can be part of self-image. I gathered the benefits of habits in a list below.

Habits are an economical way to avoid doing our previous choices all over again. In the morning we could consider all the possible meal choices and the ways to entertain ourselves while eating - or we could just take a cup of coffee and read the morning paper as usual. Forming habits and doing things as usual, minimizes the decision-making costs. When we act habitually our choices are nearly automatic and when decision-making is nearly automatized, a lot of time and effort is saved.


Benefits of habits

1. Saves time and energy in decision-making
2. Gives structure and comfort
3. Part of identity


Some habits are “bad” (unwanted negative behavior patterns) and we would like to get rid of them. For example smoking, over-spending, over-eating etc. These kinds of habits are widely discussed in the society, but there are also much more harmless habits that we would like to get rid of. When we act habitually, we miss the change to try something new. For example, if I always buy Sacher-cake at cafeteria, I will never find out if there are other products I might like even more. Some habits are socially unacceptable and some habits might be harmful in the long run. For example eating a whole chocolate box occasionally is socially acceptable (I think) and quite harmless, but eating it weekly is both socially suspicious and harmful for one’s health. If we are not satisfied with our habits and want to change them (but do not have enough energy) they cause psychological costs. Some possible costs of habits are listed below. When the costs of habits exceed the benefits we feel the urge to break down the habits, and adopt a new behavior.


 Costs of habits:

1.     Missing the other options (alternative uses for recourses)
2.     Accumulation of the harmful effects (if any)
3.     Social costs (if socially unacceptable)
4.     Psychological costs (if not satisfied with the habit)


How to help customers to form habits


What does this all have to do with marketing? Everything that has been mentioned above can be used in marketing. It would be ideal to find out what kind of habits doo your customers already have and in which situations they use your products. Then you would not have to recreate already existing behavioral models. But even without investigation many things can be done. First of all, can you product be positioned into a relevant usage situation? Is your product available in these situations? Somehow you need to create repetition, this can be done by discounts, samples etc.  The benefits of habits (orange box above) can be used in marketing. Can your product be attached to one’s identity? Does repetitive usage of your product create safety and structure? In short you can help your customers to create habits, if you provide them opportunities for repetition, attaching a product to a certain situation and as a part of their personality.



[i] Verplanken, Bas & Wood, Wendy (2006): “Interventions to Break and Create Consumer Habits”, in Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Vol. 25 (1) Spring 2006, 90–103, © 2006, American Marketing Association, ISSN: 0743-9156 (print), 1547-7207 (electronic)

[ii] Verplanken, Bas &  Faes, Suzanne (1999): “Good intentions, bad habits, and effects of forming implementation intentions on healthy eating”, European Journal of Social Psychology Aug1999, Vol. 29 Issue 5/6, p591-604

[iii] Verplanken, Bas & Orbell, Sheina (2003): Reflections on Past Behavior: A Self-Report Index of Habit Strength”; Journal of Applied Social Psychology Jun2003, Vol. 33 Issue 6, p1313-1330

[iv] Wood, Wendy & Neal, David T. (2009): “The habitual consumer”, Journal of Consumer Psychology (Elsevier Science) Oct2009, Vol. 19 Issue 4, p579-592

[v] Holland, Rob W. & Aarts, Henk & Langendama, Daan (2006): “Breaking and creating habits on the working floor: A field-experiment on the power of implementation intentions”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 42, Issue 6, November 2006, Pages 776-783

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