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Sum(mer) Habits Are Hard To Break

Summer Reading , Aug. 22, 2012

I love to read, especially while relaxing on my porch, so nothing says summer more to me than compiling the long list of books I’ve been mentally stacking up as “must-reads” and preparing for a literary feast. Historically, I have always had a large stack of books at the ready, covering rather diverse topics, and while that often daunting stack has been replaced in recent years with one sleek Kindle, the thing that hasn’t changed is the variety and number of books I tend to read at one time. I always manage to somehow work reading into my busy schedule—a chapter here, a paragraph there—but what I really look forward to is a week at the beach where my only focus is sitting in a beach chair and reading one after another. This year’s beach excursion was no different. My reading consisted of the most recent book—In One Person—from my favorite fiction author, John Irving; an inspiring series of interviews by Martin Gayford, A Bigger Message, Conversations with David Hockney;  and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. All three of these books were inspiring and a great source to “recharge” during my time off; however, it was The Power of Habit that captivated the marketer in me.

I am fascinated by how powerful, yet delicate habits are.

Delving into the book, I found myself examining my own habits and how they came to be. Habits can emerge outside our consciousness—and a great example of this is the mindless replenishment of everyday household items like toilet paper. For years I walked down the paper products aisle of the grocery store and dropped a pack of toilet paper in my cart without thinking or even realizing what I was doing. Many times I would be thinking about something else entirely while I put it in my cart. The only gratification that came from it was…well, not running out at an inconvenient time.

And while subconscious habits like picking up toilet paper may have minor repercussions (did I check the price? Did I get a good deal?), it may be the habits that occur without our permission—like buying fast food for dinner—that are more insidious. How many times have I found myself, after a long day of work, rushing out of the office to go to my daughter’s softball game and relying on the ease of the drive-thru to pick up dinner to eat after the game? I didn’t want fast food dinners after ballgames to become a habit for my family; it just happened.

Fortunately, habits are also delicate and even small changes can end the pattern, which The Power of Habit explains. The challenge is recognizing what Duhigg calls “the Habit Loop” and making those small changes. The Habit Loop is made up of three parts: Cue, Routine and Reward—not entirely different than the classical or Pavlovian conditioning that many of us are familiar with from Psych 101 class readings about Pavlov’s dogs (although we humans tend to resist being compared to dogs). The cue is that thing that triggers the habit to start into a routine. The routine is an automatic response to the cue. Last is the reward. Reward indicates how worthwhile this routine is to do again and again. The more memorable the reward, the more likely you are to repeat the routine once you get the cue.

So let’s go back to buying toilet paper—a shopping habit I didn’t even realize I had. To break that long-ingrained habit required a new cue that offered a stronger reward. That cue for me was the intrigue of trying Amazon Subscribe & Save. I thought I would try it out and compiled a list of products (including toilet paper) to put in an automatic replenishment program—encouraged by free shipping and a percentage discount. The routine is repeated every month as I approve the order details and my reward is the entire aisles I get to skip in the grocery store as well as the room I gain in my cart each week that is no longer taken up by bulky packs of toilet paper (not to mention the fun of having it delivered to my doorstep, plus a discount and free shipping).

As marketers, it is critical that we understand that the existing habits our customers have represent barriers that we have to break through. Do you know your customer’s journey? What part of her journey is a habit? A promotion only offers a cue—might be enough to start a new routine, but are you willing to count on it starting a habit? Have you provided a cue that can create a new routine, supported by a better reward than her existing habit offers? If so, could you tell my local health food store how to implement it so that I break my fast food habit?

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