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Behavioural Science

4 Steps To Creating An Habitual Brand

Humans are creatures of habit; our lives are ruled by unconscious habits, both good and bad. Scientists at Duke University estimate that 45% of our days’ actions are repeated in the same location, almost every day, making them habitual. Our brain is on a constant mission to conserve energy, and to use whatever energy it has in the most efficient manner. It does this by seeking to convert things we do often into autopilot, in order to save our mental energy for less familiar, more complicated tasks. In most cases, habits are formed inadvertently, without us having a conscious say in the matter!

But a habit is not simply something that we’ve done over and over again. Repeated behaviour explains what a habit is literally, but doesn’t explain why certain things become habits and others don’t.

MIT McGovern Institute neuroscientists have identified a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit. First, there is an external cue that reminds you of an associated routine. The trigger instantly activates your subconscious, so what we do next happens automatically. It acts like a button, the pressing of which initiates a particular routine or action. The routine can be physical or mental; completing the routine activates a reward. To put it simply, a habit is a loop our brain automatically follows: perceive “cue”, execute “routine”, and receive “reward”!

The reward is why habits exist; without them, the habit isn’t worth doing, it’s just repeated behaviour. Rewards satiate the craving that drives the behaviour, they’re what make the behaviour addictive. They tell the brain that the action was worth it because it led to pleasure or at least negated some level of pain, and motivates your mind to repeat the routine. The cue is then associated with the reward, so whenever the cue appears we automatically get into the routine as we have an unconscious expectation of receiving a similar reward, and a habit is created.

Studies have shown that if you can recognise the routine, understand the reward you’re seeking, and identify the cue or trigger, then you can possibly change or rather reshape the habit. Sounds easy! It’s not. For starters, often we’re not conscious or don’t know what the craving (the reward we’re seeking) is that’s driving the behaviour. The biggie, though, is recognising the exact cue amid the hustle and bustle of our lives. The good news is that scientists have identified that nearly all habitual cues fit into one of five categories and include either a sensory, mental or physical trigger. A cue can be a location, a time of day, your emotional state, other people, or a pattern of behaviour that precedes the routine.

The not so good news is that once a habit loop has been formed, it’s fixed in our brain forever, even if you’ve ditched the habit. Scientists at University College, London found that children aged 10 who often participated in sports were significantly more likely to participate in sport or physical activity 32 years later. They deduced from this that habits formed in childhood can continue into adulthood. Once a habit loop has been established, your brain stops actively participating in the decision-making, so if a cue is activated the old pattern repeats automatically. This is why bad habits we thought we’d given up can return if the external cue is triggered.

How do we change our habits? Not through sheer willpower, that’s for sure. It’s through changing the habit loop. The best way to do that is to replace the routine in the habit loop. Removing the cue can work, but only if the trigger is within your control or even possible to avoid – not helpful if the trigger is location and time of day! Replacing the reward with pain only really works for a few people. The only real way to change habits is to create new ones, making them strong enough to overrule previous ones.

How long does it take? Not the apocryphal 21 days that everyone quotes. A one size fits all number is not logically going to apply to every habit, and more to the point, there is no statistical evidence to back it up.  Researchers at University College, London tracked 96 participants who were attempting to create a new everyday habit such as exercising or eating fruit daily. The average was 66 days, but the range was from 20 days to still not a habit after 84!

What does this mean for your brand? Well, if we spend most of our time acting out of habit, it makes sense to assume having your brand become part of a habit can be extremely valuable. Becoming a habit should translate into consistent customer purchases. But how can you identify or create a habit loop that features your brand? You don’t — the trick is to piggy-back an existing habit.

In his book ‘The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg tells the story of both Pepsodent and Febreze. Claude Hopkins, a prominent advertiser in the 1920s, was asked to sell a new dental cleaning invention called Pepsodent. These were the days when most people did not brush their teeth. First, he developed a cue that people could immediately relate to, the “film you feel on your teeth”,  then he created a routine, “brushing your teeth with Pepsodent to remove the film”, which at the time was a non-existent need. The reward was the good feeling of a clean mouth and the birth of a billion dollar worldwide habit.

Quaker Oats was another Hopkins success, through telling people that “eating it in the morning as a breakfast cereal will provide you with energy for the whole day”. “Cue” -breakfast time; “Routine” – eating oats for breakfast; “Reward” – energy for the whole day.

P&G’s Febreze when first launched was not the success that it is today. Initially, it was positioned as a product that could eliminate unwanted odours. The problem with this was that the target customer did not realise that they needed the product as they had become desensitised to the smells in their own homes. The company studied the routines and discovered two things. The first was that their original approach required their customers to change their habits, which they had no reason to. The second was that by making Febreze integral to an existing routine and changing the perceived reward to one Febreze supplies (the attractive smell that occurs at the end of each cleaning routine) a new habit was formed. “Cue” – a freshly cleaned room; “Routine” – spraying that room with Febreze; “Reward” – satisfaction of a smell that says you’ve done a great job. Within two months sales had doubled reaching $230 million a year later.

What do these examples have in common? They all understood the habit loop. They observed and studied the routine, through which they identified a likely reward and then pin-pointed an appropriate cue or trigger. But, most importantly, they made their brand an integral part of the story by outlining what they offer and what their competitors do not, making them significantly more attractive! It’s not easy, but it can be done. Think Google, Facebook, and Apple: none were the first to market in their field, but now dominate! They’ve all became part of our daily routine.

How does your brand become a habit, or how do you change your own bad ones? According to Charles Duhigg, it’s as simple as:

  1. Identify the routine.
  2. Experiment with rewards.
  3. Isolate the cue.
  4. Have a plan!

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