Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Habitual Shopper: Part 1

As marketers, we attempt, for the most part, to change our consumer's behaviour - that is, to get them to buy a new brand or product, to choose our brand from the choices available, to use our brand a lot more often than they currently do. But the already challenging task of changing behaviour becomes even more difficult when we realize that consumers spend most of their time, and live most of their lives, operating according to their subconscious - according to habit.

Why is that the case? Is habitual behaviour something marketers should try to disrupt - or take advantage of? "The Habitual Shopper" Series will explore the key insights and themes from the presentation "The Force of Habit: The New World of Consumer Behaviour" by Dr. Neale Martin, founder of Sublime and author of the book "Habit".

In Part 1, we'll take a look at the interplay between the two minds of the human brain, and how that impacts our behaviour. To read Parts 2 and 3, click here.

We're All Under an Illusion

Dr. Martin began his talk by startling the audience with a provocative thesis - when it comes to understanding how consumers and shoppers work, marketers are all under an illusion. The illusion is that consumers, and human beings in general, are in full control of all of our decisions, that we think about everything we do before we do it, and that everything we do is done for a specific reason. Our current school of thought: “We are rational agents making conscious decisions."

This is, of course, the assumption that most models of consumer behaviour and decision-making are based on. As the classic "marketing funnel" and the more recent "path to purchase" indicate, consumers purchase something by moving through several distinct, rational phases:

(1) Need-state recognition (a shopping trigger)
(2) Awareness of the products/brands that can fulfill that need
(3) Consideration of a set of brands that they would purchase
(4) An evaluation of which brand to purchase
(5) The purchase itself
(6) Post-purchase evaluation

It is the model that most marketers and advertisers work with. "If I can move my consumer forward through each of these stages, they'll purchase my brand!" is what we usually believe. The normal way we operate, however, is quite different. The unconscious mind actually does a lot of the heavy lifting and most of our behaviour is actually happening “below the surface”. According to a recent study that paged participants throughout the day, people tended to be thinking about something completely different than what they were actually doing at the time.

In order to understand why that is, and how it works, we have to first examine the human brain's two "minds"...

The Habitual Mind

The Habitual (or Unconscious) Mind is the part of the human brain that makes decisions in the following three stages: (1) Feel using your emotions, (2) Act on them, (3) Think/rationalize the action afterwards. This mind responds strongly to emotions and stimulus, and does so quickly, and as a result of this it is able to process and take action on a large number of inputs that are happening at the same time. It shoots first and asks questions later.

Sometimes called the "old brain", the Habitual Mind was an extremely important survival mechanism for early human beings - its ability to sense threats and immediately process actions (like running away!) helped to keep us alive on the Serengeti. Because of its strong connection to emotions, the Habitual Mind also serves as our “memory center” - capturing and retaining what’s truly important to us and what to recall. On the Serengeti, this meant remembering where to find the best food and what places you should avoid.

Most importantly for modern human beings, however, is that this part of the mind is also designed to get simple, everyday tasks done in the most efficient manner. It's designed to record habits - the repeated and familiar paths that we take, and the repeated and familiar brands that we buy - helping to script out your automatic responses. Having scripted responses allows us to solve familiar but complex problems - like navigating a grocery store and buying what we need - quickly.

The Executive Mind

The Executive (or Conscious) Mind is the part of the human brain that makes decisions like this: (1) Identify the “need”, (2) Evaluate choices, (3) Act on the choice, (4) Evaluate whether you made the right choice. Powerful and rational, the Executive Mind is the new part of the brain that is capable of abstract thought and complex problem-solving. It is particularly useful when faced with new and unfamiliar situations and tasks.

This part of the brain developed later than the Habitual Mind, and aided our human ancestors as they went from being the hunted to being the hunters. As humans needed to hunt down and kill their prey, they needed to be able to focus. Unlike the prey behaviour of the Habitual Mind, which is based on "total perception", the Executive Mind is designed to only focus on one task at a time.

Most importantly for modern human beings, the Executive Mind helps us modify and change our behaviour when it comes to new and complex situations, such as effectively navigating a store or venue that we've never been to before, or deciding on which new vehicle to purchase. This is the part of the brain that most marketers tend to focus on when mapping out consumer behaviour.

The Habitual Mind and the Executive Mind - this is the human animal. This is what we are and what we do. We can't make decisions without emotions, and we often respond before the conscious mind gets a chance to. Most of the time, we make up rational reasons for what we wanted to do anyways. Our fundamental error as marketers is that we spend too much time talking about the Executive Mind - "Think, do, feel" - and not enough time talking about the Habitual Mind - "Feel, do, think".

Enjoyed this post? Check out Part 2 and Part 3 in the "The Habitual Shopper" Series.

To read more about Dr. Neale Martin, visit his website at To learn more about the Habit-based perspective on marketing, visit, read their blog called The Habit Lens, and check out the book, "Habit".

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