Brands Must Study Customer Habits Not Actions

Mark Di SommaSeptember 11, 20144583 min

We get it so wrong don’t we? We develop ideas and look to see if they’ll work by intricately studying people’s actions and reactions. We poll them. We survey them. We sample them. We question them exhaustively. Whereas, what we should be doing, according to Dr. Art Markman, is studying our customers’ habits and developing products and services that fit with how people want to behave.

That way, they’re already pre-disposed to take an action. After all, habits drive actions, not the other way around. All a brand has to do is encourage a new habit and tie the accompanying actions to their brand specifically.

Habits form, says Markman, whenever and wherever there is a consistent relationship between the world and an action. That means that “unless you are in a business where you interact with each customer only once, your customers have habits related to their interactions with you.”

Strong brands capitalize on those routine behaviors. But to do so, says Markman, brands may need to change some habits of their own:

Stop asking and start observing – What people tell you they do, and what they actually do can be very different things, Markman says. If you really want to know how people behave, you need to watch what they do rather than listen to what they say they do. In other words, most brands need to get out more – into the marketplace, watching how people go about their lives, and figuring out how, where and when they can fit in.

Don’t break people’s habits for them. Customers form their own habits in how they interact with you. Know what they are. Itemize them. Understand the sequences that people follow, and why they do what they do. So many brands don’t do that. They look at demographics or SKUs.

Then, rather than introducing new concepts that force customers to change what they are used to doing, look at making changes that intensify their habits, or improve their habit, or that are noticeable but not disruptive. The classic example of a habit-changing behavior that we can all identify with is when a supermarket brand alters their packaging. They introduce new colors, say. Or they change the position of the brand in the aisle. Suddenly you can’t ‘see’ the brand anymore, and that frustrates you. It also generates a reason to change brands to something else that you do know and feel familiar with.

Introduce a new habit with an incentive. And do it for a while. If you are going to ask people to change, give them a good reason to do so – something that has tangible value for them. And make sure that whatever you do becomes more and more valuable to them the more times it is repeated. Escalate the rewards. And critically, make sure that the incentive timeframe is long enough to allow this to happen. If you don’t give people good reasons to change for sustained periods of time, there’s a very real risk they’ll lose interest or convert. The new habit won’t have kicked in.

I really like Markman’s final piece of advice: “Study the habits of people who use your competitors. Find ways to affect their environment to get them to think about their choices.” Obvious when you think about it, but so many brands don’t turn their competitors’ weaknesses to their own advantage. That doesn’t mean of course mimicking what others are doing. It means doing more of what was talked about earlier – observing, upgrading and re-presenting a habit back as a better way of doing what customers already know and like doing.

Alongside your efforts to ‘new and improve’ your product, you might like to ask what you could be doing to ‘new and improve’ how your customers love to behave.

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