Marketing and Research Consulting for a Brave New World
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Shopper insights research shows that about half of brand purchases are decided while someone is shopping, right at the point of purchase.   On the other hand, some have claimed that 95% of what we do is driven by habit.  On the “third hand”, it is estimated that the typical grocery shopper only buys about 1% of the products that a supermarket carries.

So, which is it?  Are consumers creatures of habit or active decision-makers? And why does this matter to marketers?  Let’s dig deeper…

The definition of “habits” from Wikipedia:

Habits are routines of behavior that are repeated regularly and tend to occur subconsciously.[1][2][3] Habitual behavior often goes unnoticed in persons exhibiting it, because a person does not need to engage in self-analysis when undertaking routine tasks. .. Features of an automatic behavior are all or some of: efficiency, lack of awareness, unintentionality, uncontrollability.

Makes sense: habits are about behavior, going unnoticed, and gives the reward of efficiency.

The efficiency of forming habits might be the most important point. Habits simplify our lives that would otherwise be incredibly complex.  As Gregory Berns, author of Iconoclast says, “the brain is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat”.

Deciding how we will decide. So, our habits might not refer to always making the same choice in a given situation, but to making choices the same way.  The way we decide what to have for breakfast could be habitual, even if we eat different things some mornings.  I might have a different brand of coffee some mornings but there is no thought…I must have coffee! The decision about how you will shop a product category is critical for marketers of branded goods who are fighting commoditization. Will a shopper buy a brand they perceive as right for them or will they continue to adopt a more functional “fit for purpose” approach and increasingly gravitate towards store brands? Marketers need to learn about the opportunities inherent in influencing what Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge, calls second-order decision strategies (or deciding how we are going to decide.)

InsightsNow President Dave Lundahl refers to the behaviors of sensing vs. seeking.  If people are sensing, they are responding in a semi-conscious way to cues and not really thinking much about their behaviors.  There is little room for getting a new product into the mix if there are no new behaviors…if people are sensing. Adoption of new choice-making requires breaking habits and getting consumers into seeking mode. In this way, marketing is fundamentally about disruption.  When you launch a new product, you must disrupt either the choices that a consumer perceives or the very way in which they make those decisions.

Disrupting habits. Why would someone give up their habits regarding a given behavior when they need to simplify decisions for their lazy piece of meat?  Again, let’s go to Wikipedia…

The habit–goal interface is…characterized by the slow, incremental accrual of information over time in procedural memory. Habits can either benefit or hurt the goals a person sets for themselves. Goals guide habits most fundamentally by providing the initial outcome-oriented impetus for response repetition. In this sense, habits often are a vestige of past goal pursuit.

So, here’s where all this takes me.  Five guidelines for disruption marketing:

  1. Consumers are creatures of habit
  2. Habits are more often about being on auto-pilot regarding how we make shopping and consumption decisions than the specific choices we make
  3. Marketing is about finding ways of disrupting those habits
  4. The potential for disruption is greatest when the habits are out of synch with consumers’ contemporary goals or when the cueing system is disrupted.
  5. Traditional new product research methods are not useful for disruption marketing and must change as they bypass the study of how we decide, and force respondents into choices assuming they are already in seeking mode.

These ideas will be discussed at an upcoming webinar on May 25th that I will participate in.  Check this blog or here for details.

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One Response to “Are consumers creatures of habit? five rules for disruption marketing”

  1. Michael Patrick


    As a decision scientist I don’t see much “disruptive” here except the word “disruptive”. Yes, we are creatures of habit–as you note habit is aimed at reducing cognitive complexity, even in the face of conflicting evidence. Search behavior takes various forms depending on the product or situation–some consumers have “jacks-to-open” thresholds and others use compensatory methods or trade-offs where high scores for one attribute can be offset by low scores on another. This is a very complex area with a rich subset of “decision” algorithms. If that is too much trouble, some consumers simply depend on national brands for their purchase decision–again depending on the category.

    Regarding #5 above: I don’t understand what it means to “bypass the study of how we decide.” Also, the concept of forcing respondents (consumers??) into choices is at odds with much of the understanding of how consumers become decisional and act. How would this be done in practice?