Breaking the habit code


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How habits are formed and the learnings for brands.

Breaking the habit code

  1. 1. In Focus1Share thisBreaking the habit codeOpinion LeaderBrain Game
  2. 2. In Focus2Share thisBreaking the habit codeCliché and neuroscience agree:Human beings are indeed creatures ofhabit – and that has big implicationsfor brand strategies.
  3. 3. In Focus3Share thisBreaking the habit code“Most of the time,what we do, iswhat we domost of the time”This statement from the psychologists Townsend andBever captures one of the great truisms of humanbehaviour – and one of the great challenges formarketers. We know that we are, in the well-wornphrase, ‘creatures of habit.’ We know that thosehabits can shape the fortunes of brands and products.Yet benefiting from a habit is one thing; knowing howto create or change it is something else entirely. Asneuroscience reveals more about what habits are, andhow they come to direct our behaviour, it’s becomingclear that marketers cannot afford to leave habit-forming to chance.When they move beyond brand engagement intothe habit-forming realm, marketers must set asidemany of their natural assumptions about what drivesconsumer behaviour. They must move from engagingon a rational or emotional level to focusing relentlesslyon training. Marketers may first approach consumersin the style of Monty Roberts the Horse Whisperer,but to form habits successfully they must move ontodrilling their target audience in the style of dog guruslike Caesar Milan or Barbara Woodhouse. The worldof habits is one of behaviour, reward – and rigidconsistency.
  4. 4. In Focus4Share thisFeatures of habitBroadly speaking, habits can be defined as automaticresponses to particular sets of circumstances or‘environmental cues’. And these automatic responsesexist for a very good reason: as far as the brainis concerned, they work. They represent learnedbehaviour that has delivered for us in particularcircumstances in the past, and has done so consistentlyenough to become hard-wired into our mentalfurniture. Habits become habits when they make thetransition from a response initiated by our intentionsto one triggered by a contextual cue itself. When theyreach this stage, they don’t require any thought at all;in fact, it would require a conscious effort on our partnot to respond to that particular set of circumstancesin that particular way.Evolutionarily speaking, this makes a great deal ofsense. An automatic response is less taxing on ourmental resources and leaves them free to focus on thethings we don’t already know the best response to –less familiar contexts, situations and problems. A fullyformed habit isn’t a shortcut for thinking or a differentway of thinking; it is a substitute for thinking. Habitsare our brain on autopilot. And that autopilot appearsto be activated much of the time. According to a studypublished by Wood in 2002, up to 45 per cent of ourbehaviour tends to be repeated in the same physicallocation every single day; a strong indication of habitsat work.Think about the last time a light bulb expired in yourhome – and you’ll have a pretty good idea of howcompletely our autopilot can kick in. If you didn’thappen to have any spare bulbs it may have taken youa day or two to change the light. Throughout thatperiod, every time that you walked into that particularroom, you flicked the switch to turn the light on. Youdid this even though you knew perfectly well thatthe bulb was out. You hadn’t forgotten that the lightdidn’t work; instead your brain was simply followinga set pattern that it had learned to activate every timethat you walk into that room. It would have taken aconsiderable conscious effort to override this pattern; aconscious effort that it didn’t make sense for your brainto devote its resources to.Breaking the habit code
  5. 5. In Focus5Share thisBreaking the habit codeAffective refers tocues and triggersthat reflect theway somethingresonates withus personallyThe contextual cues to which we develop habitualresponses can be as simple and familiar as walking intoa particular room or along a particular supermarketaisle, but they can also take the form of ‘affective’stimuli, such as impulses, moods and memories. Theword ‘affective’ refers to cues and triggers that reflectthe way something resonates with us personally suchas eating a chocolate bar when you’re feeling down(mood) or ordering a Corona after thinking about abeach holiday (memory).The habit’s journeyNot every action that we repeat becomes a habit, butevery action that we repeat consistently in the samecontext has the potential to do so – especially if it isan action that aligns closely with our motivations andintentions at the time. The journey towards becominga habit involves the brain chunking the entire sequenceof our habitual response together with the contextthat triggers it, as a single memory. When our brainrecalls the context, it cannot help but also recall theresponse; mentally speaking, the two have becomeindivisible. Many habits start life as heuristics, simplerules of thumb that we consistently follow to helpus make decisions more efficiently. Others first formas rituals, routines that we at first follow consciouslybecause of the emotional effect that they create. Inthe case of decisions about products or brands, one ofthe heuristics we often use is to look at our own pastbehaviour and repeat it. When a heuristic results inour following exactly the same behaviour in the samecircumstances (as it often does), it stands a strongchance of developing into an automatic response.And once this happens, the brain no longer needsto refer to the rule of thumb at all. It deactivatesalternative responses in favour of what is now anautomatic sequence of actions, triggered wheneverthose circumstances occur. If heuristics sketch out anapproach to help us reach decisions and respond tothe situations that we encounter, habits inscribe it inpermanent marker. Once the autopilot is fully engaged,it doesn’t consider any other possible course of action.
  6. 6. In Focus6Share thisWell-trained popcorn-munchersIn November 2011, the researcher David Neal publishedthe results of an experiment that demonstrates just howrigidly habits can direct our behaviour in well-definedcircumstances – and how illogical this behaviour cansometimes appear as a result.In the experiment, moviegoers were given a free boxof popcorn whilst they sat in a theatre watchingtrailers. Unbeknownst to the audience, some weregiven freshly popped popcorn whilst others receivedweek-old, stale popcorn. Those previously identifiedas having strong popcorn-eating habits were found tohave eaten significantly more stale popcorn than otherswho received the week-old boxes. Interestingly, theywere well aware of how bad tasting the popcorn was –and told researchers as much – but they weren’t able tomodify a habitual response that told them that, whenin a movie theatre, they enjoy eating popcorn.To confirm what was causing the stale popcorn-munching, the experiment was then repeated –but in a well-lit room with a small-screen television.In this context, the habitual popcorn-eaters wantednothing to do with the stale popcorn. It was only thespecific sights and sounds of a cinema (darkened lights,surround sound, excitement-inducing environmentalfactors) that triggered the response. The habit of eatingpopcorn had nothing whatsoever to do with how goodthe popcorn tasted – but everything to do with thecontext of sitting in a cinema.Breaking the habit codeIn Focus6Share this
  7. 7. In Focus7Share thisHow habits determine the destiny of brandsThis is all great news for a brand that happens toform part of the habitual response that a consumerdevelops – that becomes the popcorn in the cinema.It’s a potential disaster if another product has got therefirst. Circumstances may move on, better products maybecome available, better ways of dealing with situationsmay become apparent; but habits do not respondto such changes. Their automaticity is their greatvalue as far as the brain is concerned, but it can alsobe a great source of frustration to marketers. Habitsaren’t interested in the logic of today; they are too busyfollowing the logic of yesterday.Marketers can spend a great deal of time and moneyseeking to convince consumers that their brand orproduct represents the most appropriate response toparticular circumstances – a better way to celebratesuccess or comfort themselves when things don’tgo well; a better way to achieve their goals; a bettersolution to a problem. If those consumers have alreadyformed habits around rival products or solutions thensuch efforts are most likely wasted. The response hasalready been defined and locked down; the consciousbrain is no longer listening – and will only start to doso again if marketers can find a way to interruptthe autopilot.The brain’s autopilot is immensely difficult toreprogramme – but that does not mean it cannot beoverridden. Habits are an automatic response to veryspecific sets of contextual cues. And this means thatthe most effective strategy for changing consumerbehaviour often lies in changing the context for thatbehaviour, rather than battling to change a habit itself.Breaking the habit code
  8. 8. In Focus8Share thisHow to train your consumerTraining your consumer is an important aspect of habitformation. It is about helping them be more efficientin getting things done by using your brand, product orservice. In fact, the less they think about you, the better:a paradox that marketers steeped in the value of brandengagement and affinity sometimes find it hard tocome to terms with.Focusing on context, environmental cues and reinforcersof behaviour requires a new approach to developingbrand and marketing strategies – one that looks beyondstated needs and motivations to explore hidden triggersthat may well appear inconsequential to consumersthemselves. It requires marketers to learn how toidentify habitual behaviour, how to distinguish this fromconventional consumer loyalty, and how to develop theright strategy in response.Mixing up loyal consumers and habitual ones can haveserious consequences for both acquisition and customerretention strategies. A change in website or productdesign might renew engagement amongst loyalcustomers but could easily interrupt habitual customers’behaviour and drive them elsewhere. Brand-relatedpromotions might prove highly effective amongst loyalcustomers whilst passing over the heads of habitualcustomers whose brains are not focused on the brandat all. In similar ways, knowing how much of yourcompetitor’s market share can be attributed to habits,loyalty, and situational circumstances (TNS research hasshown that, in 42% of cases, people don’t actuallybuy their preferred brand) is crucial for formulating aneffective approach to increasing your own.In Quantitative research, identifying the presence ofhabits involves being alive to discrepancies betweenbehavioural intention and actual behaviour – andseeking explanations for these discrepancies amongstour automatic, unthinking responses. Identifyingrepeating patterns of behaviour (for example, purchasesat the same time, in the same location or in the samecontext) can help to pinpoint habits at work – and helpmarketers to apply the right strategies.Qualitative research holds the key to revealing thespecific contextual cues driving consumer habits – butcan only reveal them when patient interviewers areprepared to look beyond consumers’ stated needs andmotivations. Techniques such as cognitive interviewing,which seeks to recreate the context for behaviour in themind of the consumer, have proven particularlyBreaking the habit codeIn 42% of cases,people don’tactually buy theirpreferred brand
  9. 9. In Focus9Share thissuccessful in identifying hidden cues in existing contexts– and revealing how brands can use different cues tosupplant them.In order to do so, a brand may seek to create a newcontext for itself – or make use of new contexts as theynaturally emerge with changing circumstance: newmotherhood, teenage years or leaving home to attendcollege, for example. Whichever approach it adopts,its success at becoming the habitual response to thatcontext will require a departure from conventionalmarketing approaches. Rather than advertising aspecific product or brand benefit, it must focus insteadon advertising a specific behaviour, on persuadingconsumers to repeat that behaviour in the right context,and on ensuring that they are rewarded for doing so.Staying on cueContextual stability is the key to successful habitforming. It is not enough simply to persuade aconsumer to repeat a certain action frequently; for astrong habit to form, they must repeat the action inthe same physical or affective context, enabling thebehaviour to be linked closely to relevant contextualcues. In Brazil, Danone took just such an approach toestablishing a contextual link for the consumption ofits Actimel product. Danone distributed free toasterswith packs of the drinking yoghurt – but these weretoasters with a difference, branding the words “Haveu had your Actimel today?” on every morning slice. Bypersuading consumers to drink Actimel as an automaticresponse to making toast in the morning, the brandensured that its product was regularly consumed – andregularly restocked.Breaking the habit codeThe right rewardWhen a stable context has been established, the secondchallenge for a would-be habit is to ensure that thebehaviour it promotes delivers the right reward. Thisreward must not only encourage the repetition of thebehaviour; it must also persuade the brain that thisbehaviour aligns so thoroughly with intentions andmotivations that it should become automatic – literallya ‘no-brainer.’Not every reward is up to the task. In fact, the businessof aligning reward to behaviour and contextual cuesin the right way is where many marketing tactics fallfoul of our habit-forming mechanisms. Repeatedlydiscounting prices in order to persuade consumers totrial products can be particularly self-defeating in thisregard. Here, the behaviour that is being encouragedDon’tforgetyourActimel
  10. 10. In Focus10Share thisis to expect to buy the product at less than full price; thereward is saving money. Marketers that rely too heavilyon discounts succeed only in training their consumersnever to pay full price for their products. A betterapproach to encouraging habitual behaviour would beto offer promotions that help set a rhythm (e.g. weeklycoupons for a set period of time) or using coupons toreinforce behaviour rather than making the couponitself the cue to shop. Some brands have succeededby rewarding people who use one coupon, by sendingthem another one.At the onset of habit formation, rewards are at theirmost effective when they follow behaviour immediately,and align with affective factors within the brain.This reinforces that a behaviour is the most effectivemeans of meeting our intentions and aspirations, andencourages the evolution of that behaviour into ahabitual response to relevant contextual cues. One ofthe common weaknesses in marketing strategies is afailure to reinforce behaviour that’s just been adopted.Long delays between behaviour and reward won’t helphabit formation. Just ask Caesar Milan.How Oreo invented a habitOreo provides arguably the most complete example of abrand creating and owning a context in all of its physicaland affective dimensions, and therefore becoming thedefault habitual response. In Oreo’s case, the contextis a father returning from work to spend time with hisdaughter; the habitual response that it has successfullycreated is ritually to share milk and Oreo cookies; thereward that it offers is precious quality time with one’sfamily, an emotive concept with great affective power.And everything about the way that Oreo advertises itsproduct appears designed to reinforce links betweenthe three.Oreo ads focus not on the benefits of the product orwhy people should eat it – but instead on how theyshould eat it. They relentlessly advertise the behaviourthat the brand seeks to promote and they do so in veryspecific and very consistent detail. The father alwayswears his suit; he has always just returned from work;the cookies are always consumed with drink of milk;the top of the cookie is always removed; the cookieis always licked; and of course, the cookie is alwaysdunked in the milk. As a lesson in how to form habits
  11. 11. In Focus11Share thisBreaking the habit codesomething towards it, and as a result ‘do’ somethingabout it. More recently we have shifted to an emotionalparadigm, where ’feel’ increasingly comes first,appealing to consumers on an emotional level beforethey ’think’ about taking action and eventually ’do’ so.However, to form habits successfully, a far more radicalshift is required: advertising not a rational argumentor an emotional appeal, but a specific set of actions.Training consumers to ’do’ something is the mostimportant element of habit forming, and the basis forthose consumers to later construct positive feelings andthoughts about the behaviour they have been trainedto follow.The specific strategies required to form habits meanthat even successful, high-profile brands cannottake them for granted. As competition for a place inconsumers’ routines intensifies, brands armed withprecise insight as to those consumers’ existing habits,and their potential for developing new ones, have adistinct competitive advantage. The ability to teachdogs new tricks has always been a prized one, after all.through contextual stability and a laser-like focus oncues and associated behaviour, Oreo is hard to beat.And by sidestepping discussions about the benefits orotherwise of eating Oreos, this global communicationsstrategy has avoided potential barriers such as rationalconcerns about fattening biscuits – or irrationalreactions to the cookies’ unusual colour.Beyond branding: the challenge of habitOreo’s approach shows how the business of buildinga habit can be very different from that of building andmarketing a brand. Establishing brand awareness,building perceptions and driving engagement areoften essential precursors for habit formation, aligningproducts themselves with a consumer’s intentions andneeds. However, they will not in themselves lead tohabits forming around those products – and if rivalhabits already exist they are not in themselves enoughto supplant them.Incorporating habit forming into strategies turns existingmarketing paradigms on their heads. Once, we invitedaudiences to first ‘think’ about a product, then ‘feel’
  12. 12. In Focus12Share thisAbout the authorsGerardo Fuksman is Director of TNS’s Brand Communication practice in Spain. He brings more than 17years research industry experience in Latin America andSpain to his role.Prior to joining TNS in 2011, Gerardo held senior clientservice and research positions at Synovate.Gerardo began his career at Focoslatin, a local Argentinianagency and subsequently joined Ipsos Novacation in 1999where he lead brand, communication and positioningprojects for a variety of clients across Latin America.Gerardo is a graduate in Sociology from the University ofBuenos Aires and has also studied Business Administrationand Economics.Franck Sarrazit is Global Director of TNS’s Brand Communications practice, focusing on developing completesolutions that help key clients grow their brands, assessobstacles to strategic effectiveness and track performance.Prior to joining TNS in 2012, Franck held roles with Procter Gamble and Synovate, as well as working in brandconsulting, delivering high profile global research projects.Franck is an expert in psychoanalytic research and uses thisexpertise to build brands.Franck was born in France but has been living abroad forthe past 20 years. He obtained both his Masters and Ph.D.while studying in England.Making Habits Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes thatStick – by Jeremy Dean (2013); OneworldThe Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite ConflictWith Motives?– by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, MengjuWu and David Kurlander. Personality and Social PsychologyBulletin, 37, 1428–1437 (2011)Habits in everyday life: The thought and feel of action – byWendy Wood, Jeffrey M. Quinn and Deborah Kashy. Journalof Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1281–1297 (2002)Sentence Comprehension: The Integration of Habits andRules – by David J. Townsend and Thomas G. Bever (2001);Cambridge, MA: MIT PressReferences
  13. 13. In Focus13Share thisAbout In FocusIn Focus is part of a regular series of articles that takes an in-depth look at a particular subject, region ordemographic in more detail. All articles are written by TNS consultants and based on their expertise gatheredthrough working on client assignments in over 80 markets globally, with additional insights gained through TNSproprietary studies such as Digital Life, Mobile Life and The Commitment Economy.About TNSTNS advises clients on specific growth strategies around new market entry, innovation, brand switching andstakeholder management, based on long-established expertise and market-leading solutions. With a presencein over 80 countries, TNS has more conversations with the world’s consumers than anyone else and understandsindividual human behaviours and attitudes across every cultural, economic and political region of the world.TNS is part of Kantar, one of the world’s largest insight, information and consultancy groups.Please visit for more information.Get in touchIf you would like to talk to us about anything you have read in this report, please get in touch or via Twitter @tns_globalYou maybe interested in...May I have your attention please Making memories The secret life of the brain You can’t always get what you want