Habits guide consumer behavior like powerful gyroscopes. What products customers use and where they obtain them, what media they consume, and what apps they activate to get jobs done are driven more by unconscious habits than conscious choice. This is best understood as behavioral inertia—the more habitual the behavior, the harder it is to change, and the more difficult it is for customers to explain. And it is habitual customer behavior that often thwarts the best-laid plans of marketers.
The influence of habit on consumer behavior led me to write the book, habit: the 95% of behavior marketers ignore and launch a marketing consultancy around habit marketing. I began partnering with neuromarketing companies to help clients in 2010 as our approaches were highly compatible. While habits are driven by neural networks in the striatum, they can only be observed at the macro level.
To understand consumer behavior through a habit lens requires breaking habits into their constituent parts. We operationalize customer behavior using Clayton Christensen’s framework of ‘jobs to be done.’ Customers do not buy products as much as they rent them to do a particular job. Habits are the process by which people efficiently automate their repeated jobs-to-be-done. For example, to get to work you might use a bus, a subway, your car, a Taxi, or Uber. Deviations in weather, whether or not you’re running late, or the clothes you are wearing might alter which you choose. If any of those conditions are encountered repeatedly, that behavior can become habitual under those conditions.
Repeated customer behavior follows what Daniel Kahneman refers to as the law of least effort (LLE). According to Kahneman:
“The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”
Habits are the most efficient form of human behavior, because, once formed they require no executive-mind effort. For consumers this means that repeated shopping and usage behaviors are automatically converted into habits.
Customer habits form predictably when these five things occur.
- A job to be done is repeated…
- in a similar situation (location, time of day, day of week, etc.) …
- where a reliable cue is associated with the job to be done…
- and reinforcing feedback occurs in connection with that behavior… or
- when a behavior belief forms either to bridge gaps in time between behavior and reinforcement or when feedback is mixed or non-existent.
The implications that unconscious drivers heavily influence customer behavior are profound because marketing assumptions are based on the idea that customers make rational and conscious choices. Most of our beliefs about how we make such choices are based on a flawed model of how the brain works. Theories of buyer behavior, consumer choice, and customer satisfaction all rely on the idea that the conscious mind possesses almost complete knowledge of what we do and why we do it. There is also an assumption that our memories are accurate records of past events, as if the brain stores information on a hard drive. But like a navigator using bad charts, these mental models have led marketers far astray for decades.
The Influence of Habits
When customers encounter novel situations, they solve them using a combination of conscious and unconscious mental processes, which we refer to as Pilot behavior. When positive feedback occurs that reinforces the way the consumer solved that job-to-be-done, it creates the first step in the habit formation process. It cannot be overstated how important unconsciously processed feedback is to this process. Just as the information processed emotionally is often more important than what is consciously remembered about an ad, unconscious learning from behavior à feedback determines if that behavior begins to become habitual.
Though solving the problem initially was purposeful and goal directed, with sufficient repetitions the behavior becomes automatic and no longer connected to goals or intentions, which we term autopilot behavior. When a habit forms, that job-to-done operates on autopilot where a cue triggers the behavior. And this is where conventional theories of consumer behavior break down. Customers often aren’t consciously choosing between brands, or evaluating product performance, or making satisfaction judgements. Most market research elicits conscious level responses only, unless they incorporate neuromarketing or biometric technology. And even then, the habitual processes are largely invisible to researchers.
The reality is that most shopping behavior is the results of automatically executed scripts that have been encoded in the unconscious, habitual mind. Though consumers often have little idea why they made a purchase, they assume their actions were conscious. So, when asked, they figure they must have had a reason and craft what seems to be a logical answer to explain their behavior to the research, as well as to themselves. Marketers diligently collect this data and use it to create advertising messages, distribution strategies, and to design new products. Which is why most marketing campaigns underperform expectations, and 85% of new products fail.
But what is really going on inside the customer’s brain? How is it possible that the vast majority of behavior is not initiated by conscious consideration, but is instead the result of unconscious routines? The brain uses 20% of the body’s energy, and conscious level effort increases the energy expenditure. So, any behaviors that can be relegated to the habitual mind will not increase energy usage. The LLE explains the essential value of habit formation. And a quick look at the number of products, services, apps, websites, stores, shops, movies, plays, books, magazines, and restaurants easily explains why habits are essential of efficiently live in the modern world.