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On Habit, Behavior and Choice

Conditioning habitual behavior can be part of a strategy for influencing customer choices.

How's this for a piece of marketing advice: “To hold on to customers, you should keep them from consciously thinking about you.”

Or this: “What could be more obvious than the need to create products and services that satisfy our customers? … The only problem is that customer satisfaction tells us almost nothing about what our customers will do in the future.”

Both quotes are from a thought-provoking book I've been reading by Dr. Neale Martin, an expert in consumer behavior. It's called, Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore, and it challenges so many commonplace assumptions about marketing, branding and consumer behavior that one might be tempted to disregard it as just another quack piece of marketing theory.

Except for one thing: Martin's basic argument, and the evidence he cites to support it, holds up very well when you use it to analyze your own behavior and that which you observe in the course of daily business and personal activities. When you consider it in the context of onsite foodservice, where customer habits, choices and behaviors are dynamic factors affecting participation rates, menu mix, customer loyalty and a host of other issues, it offers a very useful construct for critical analysis.

Basically, Martin's premise bears on the idea that much human behavior can be traced to two different kinds of mental activity. The first — what he terms “executive mind” — is based in mental and brain processes where cognitive, conscious thought occurs. It is where “we consciously store and retrieve memories, create intentional thought, and logically solve problems. The executive mind can think about both the past and the future.”

In contrast, the second type of mental activity — what he terms the “unconscious, habitual mind” — is the way we handle routine decisions and tasks most of the time. It is capable of managing a wide range of highly complex activities and handles a vast array of functions as well as doing the job of “storing thousands of responses to previously learned behaviors. The habitual mind is guided by the past but lives in the present.”

Martin notes such terms are arbitrary and can give the false impression these processes are simpler than they really are. But it is a distinction that explains why, for example, we can suddenly find ourselves negotiating difficult traffic on the highway without remembering how we traveled the last five miles. The habitual mind has been handling the response work while the executive mind has been doing something else, but has suddenly been called back to dominance because of an event or decision that required its attention.

Such behaviors have occupied psychologists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists and philosophers for years. But Martin turns the concept to the matter of marketing, and in doing so challenges us to re-think many aspects of our conventional wisdom.

“Success does not come from getting to the marketplace first or from creating the best or cheapest product,” he says. “Our business assumptions are based on the idea that our customers are making conscious choices…[but] Success comes from becoming the unconscious, habitual choice of your customers.”

Martin argues that not understanding this principle leads to frequent — and often impressively expensive — new product introduction failures, offering numerous real life examples. For him it also explains why many customers will defect from product choices even when they report being satisfied or highly satisfied with the company or product they are leaving.

In a short column there is not room to explore his thinking in great detail, but I'll go back to that quote I opened with to suggest why his thinking may be very pertinent to FM's readers.

“To hold on to customers, you should keep them from consciously thinking about you. Though counterintuitive, automatic repurchase means the customer's habitual mind is in control. If a customer's executive mind is thinking about you, it could be thinking about your competitors as well.”

In contrast, “To take a customer away from a competitor, you must break the customer's existing habits by first getting him to consciously think about the product. The stronger the existing habit the more effort is necessary to dislodge it from an unconscious to a conscious process.”

Despite the fact that this book delves into some detail about complex topics like brain structure and behavioral psychology, it is a fairly short volume — about 125 pages — and is an easy read. I guarantee that doing so will make you think differently about the way you promote your own services and go about the business of building — or changing — the habits of your own customers.

TAGS: Marketing
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