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", first described by Raymond Reynolds from the University of Birmingham, occurs because through repeated experience we’ve developed a habit that we can’t fully over-ride.
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 purchase your brand if most of the time they are on auto-pilot, mindlessly buying the same product as last time?
Habits are hard to break
Since habits are context-specific, if a consumer’s environment changes, their habits become loosened. For example, when consumers undergo a life event, their environment is changed so much it destabilises habitual behaviour.
By life event, I mean important changes, such as getting a new job, starting university, having a baby or getting married.
In order to quantify the importance of these moments, Laura Weston and I surveyed 2,370 nationally representative customers.
We asked two questions: First, which life events had they undergone recently? Second, whether they had changed brands in ten specified categories.
The categories straddled a diverse range of sectors such as make-up, coffee shops, lager, broadband, mobiles and 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.
Applying this insight
As habits are hard to break, brands should identify the rare moments when their grip becomes loosened. They are easier than ever before to identify because of the wealth of targeting data available. Facebook, for example, captures when users move 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 is disproportionately important.
Finally, identify the life event most relevant to your category. The relative importance of these events varies significantly.
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.
Brands that carefully choose the right moment to communicate will ensure that their message has the maximum impact.
Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD