Context is Destiny

Customers are creatures of habit. Once a habit forms, future behavior is automatic and unconscious, i.e., mentally “effortless.” But how does a product or brand become part of that behavior? It all begins with context—the situation in which the behavior occurs (location, time of day, job to be done, etc.). When something feels familiar, behavior can be reliably turned over to the habitual mind, including using specific products or services to get a job done. If your product is associated with a context, it is used automatically. If not, it means spending significantly on advertising and promotion to make a sale.

Let’s examine 4 different context examples, and the impact they have on purchase and use.

  1. One of our first habit clients was a soup company challenged by a slow but persistent decline in sales. The problem: soup was associated with only two contexts—cold weather and sickness. In soup’s glory days it was a course, like salad. When Americans followed the Law of Least Effort (LLE) and simplified supper, the soup course was eliminated. We worked with this client on identifying and creating other soup contexts for growth opportunities.
  2. Conducting multiple habit-based market research projects for consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies, we discovered that shoppers have a mental shopping context grid, a matrix that determines where they buy what. A shopper may go to 10 stores that sell paper towels, but only one is the place to purchase paper products. In a study we did for disposable diapers, a mom told us she felt like she had been “kicked in the stomach” when she had to buy diapers at her grocery store. This is a glimpse into the power of contexts on purchase and use.
  3. While consumers may be partially conscious in deciding to buy dog food from Chewy or Tesco, creating contexts is an unconscious process. A shopper doesn’t become a customer until the third or fourth purchase from a store, whether brick and mortar, online, or via an app. Using a coupon once to buy from a different channel rarely if ever creates a new shopping context Creating repetition is essential for forming contexts.
  4. The same is true with services and B2B. Does a small business owner call her accountant or lawyer when thinking about bringing in investors? And getting onto a company’s approved vendor list is a necessary but hardly sufficient achievement to actually getting business. But if you become part of that company’s processes, there is a clear context of when to bring your firm in to get that job done and repeat business is automatic.

The value of owning a context inside a customers’ heads cannot be overstated. In the mid 1990s when the Internet was taking off, retailers put “.com” after their names creating a new channel to sell the same stuff to their existing customers. However, two companies created a context around online shopping—Amazon and Alibaba. Jeff Bezos-let Amazon led the way, starting with books, a product people were willing to wait a few days to get, then relentlessly made the moves necessary to become the context for online shopping.

Jack Ma’s vision of an ecommerce platform drove the creation and rapid expansion of Alibaba and its three primary ecommerce sites, Taobao, Tmall, and Combining business models more like eBay and Google than to Amazon, Alibaba became the way millions of Chinese customers purchased products online. The two ecommerce giants had close to $500 billion in revenues in 2020.

Millions of shoppers created and expanded a list of products in their shopping context grid associated with Amazon and Alibaba. More importantly, when customers are looking for products not in their grid, they automatically go to these companies’ platforms.

Creating a new context can be the best way to enter new markets or launch new products. While that sounds simple, the challenge is that context formation is an unconscious process. This is why forming new healthy habits fail despite executive mind intent, and why most marketing campaigns fall short.

In our white paper, The Era of Mass Habit Disruption: Marketing through the Pandemic, we discuss how contexts have been disrupted for billions of people around the world. Because of the depth and breadth of the disruption, new contexts have been and are still being formed. If you are interested in learning more, go to the Contact Us page at

About The Author

Dr. Neale Martin

Neale Martin, PhD is the author the best-selling book Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore, a pioneering re-examination of marketing in light of the revolution in neuroscience and cognitive psychology that reveals most of what consumers do is driven by emotion and other unconscious processes. Dr. Martin co-founded Sublime Behavior Marketing to apply the tenets of habit marketing to the toughest challenges facing his clients, which include many of the largest consumer product, pharmaceutical, communications, and transportation companies in the world. At the core of Dr. Martin’s practice is a painstaking deconstruction of the conscious and unconscious drivers of current customer behavior, and the development of plans to alter behavior and create new habits. Dr. Martin presents at major conferences around the world including Marketing 50, Brand Manage Camp, Product Development and Management Association, and the Shopper Marketing Forum. He has presented at private events for organizations like Procter & Gamble, Ubisoft, Coca-Cola. Verizon Wireless, Kimberly-Clark, CVS, Reliance Industries Limited, and Johnson & Johnson, and keynoted global marketing and brand events, including the Taiwanese Excellent Branding Association and the World Brand Congress in Mumbai, India. Dr. Martin held the position of Professor of Innovation at the Coles College of Management at Kennesaw State University.

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