How Marketers Can Tap 'The Power of Habit'

A Q&A With NYT Best-selling Author Charles Duhigg

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Charles Duhigg
Charles Duhigg Credit: Elizabeth Alter

In February, New York Times writer Charles Duhigg published a piece in the Sunday Magazine that got much of the marketing world -- and beyond --talking. The piece, an excerpt from his new book "The Power of Habit" focused on two case studies. The first detailed how Target uses its big data to determine which customers are pregnant and the privacy pitfalls it encountered on the way. The second looked at how P&G unlocked the secrets of household cleaning to turn Febreze from an almost failure into a billion-dollar product line. In each case, the stories centered on the science behind how human habits are formed, and how they can be broken and rearranged. The trick is in identifying the cues in our lives that trigger the habit and the rewards we feel from performing the ritual. The cues can be tiny but the stake can be huge. Mr. Duhigg told AdAgeStat how marketers can take advantage of the science.

AdAgeStat: In your research, talking to marketers especially, did you notice any pattern in the way marketers helped identify cues?

Mr. Duhigg: All cues fall into one of five categories. It's either the time of day, a particular place, a certain emotion, the presence of particular other people or kind of a ritualized behavior that becomes a cue. When I was talking to marketers, the people who had been exposed to that research were very structured and looking at those five categories trying to figure out when someone's making the purchasing decision, what's the surrounding? That being said, in the story of Febreze, Drake Stimson at Procter and Gamble said that was really important for them in diagnosing cleaning habits and understanding how to piggyback Febreze on existing habits. He worked with [Gerald] Zaltman. He has consumers draw pictures of different brands. And a lot of that is about cue formation and it's very formless. What I found was that there were these two approaches that used in tandem were the best, which is very structured approaches to studying people's environment and then very unstructured approaches that lets people define their own cues through ambiguity.

AdAgeStat: Did you get any sense of what kinds of things marketers felt you couldn't change?

Mr. Duhigg: One of the real takeaways from the experiments that have been done in neurology laboratories is that essentially any pattern can be shifted, any habit can be changed. That being said, obviously, some are much harder to change than others, and the ones that are really hard are the ones that we think about the least. For marketers this is the big issue -- that nobody actually spends that much time thinking about what toothpaste they should buy. And so you're trying to influence a decision that has very, very little mind share, and has become a habitual decision. I grab the one that looks just like the one that 's next to my sink, or I buy Crest because I always buy Crest. When I talk to marketers, they say that that 's the hardest thing to influence because so often, no matter how much marketing you throw at them, people just don't think that hard about what toothpaste they should buy. So it's hard to influence the decision which is why moments of life change, or major life upheavals are so valuable because for the first time people start either deliberately or indeliberately reconsidering their most basic habits.

AdAgeStat: Are there some people who are more susceptible to having their habits changed, especially by marketers, or some groups or types or …?

Mr. Duhigg: People who are going through life changes -- if you're getting a divorce, if you're buying a house, if you're moving, if you're having a baby. This is one of the reasons why marketers target kids in college so much because basically all of college is like a major life upheaval almost every year. Their habits are more malleable by outside forces when they're going through a major life event. There's some type of change that seems to break up a sense of self-identity and the normal cues that surround them. The second thing, and this is a little bit different, is that we know from studies, that people can change their own habits much better when they know how habits work.

AdAgeStat: And do you think these theories work with markets as well or large demographic groups?

Mr. Duhigg: You mean across thousands of people and sort of societies?

AdAgeStat: Or generations or geographies. Because really, Target or Procter & Gamble isn't interested in changing one person's habits. They need to change a million people's habits.

Mr. Duhigg: Right. Absolutely. Or they need to change one person's habits a million times over, in part because of the science and in part because of their capability to amass such huge datasets now on behavior that they can try and influence individuals. They can create individualized marketing campaigns but they just have to do it over a million individuals.

AdAgeStat: Did you come across examples of brands and marketers who just completely never solved a riddle?

Mr. Duhigg: I don't know that the failures contain really clear lessons. The successes, particularly successes that come after failure, like Febreze, contain clear lessons. This is why they failed and then this is why they succeeded.

AdAgeStat: You'd think consumers don't stand a chance.

Mr. Duhigg: I think some people would argue that they don't. That being said, though, I don't know that it's a bad thing. My wife was pregnant while I was working on the book -- particularly the chapter about Target -- and so we signed up for Target 's frequent buyer program, their red card and sort of got enrolled in their database system. And so I started getting all these coupons. We never told them that Liz was pregnant but I started getting all these coupons for pregnancy stuff because they clearly picked up on our patterns and figured out that she was expecting. And I thought it was great. I needed a coupon for a crib and a coupon for a crib literally came the week I was thinking to myself, "Oh, I should go buy a crib." I didn't need coupons for video games. I needed coupons for diapers and I got coupons for diapers and none for video games. So I think that the argument that the science and the application of the science by corporations brings some value to customers' lives is true. I don't think that that 's just a self-serving argument.

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