How to make your product a habit

Jeremy Liew · July 14, 2008 · Short URL:

Startups need to find or create a cue that can habitualize their users

The NY Times has a great article this Sunday about how habits may be good for you. It is ostensibly about how Dr. Val Curtis turned to Proctor and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever to help create a new habit in Ghana, washing hands with soap, thereby reducing the death rate from hygiene related diseases like diarrhea. But why turn to consumer products companies to solve a public health problem?

From the article:

"If you look hard enough, you’ll find that many of the products we use every day — chewing gums, skin moisturizers, disinfecting wipes, air fresheners, water purifiers, health snacks, antiperspirants, colognes, teeth whiteners, fabric softeners, vitamins — are results of manufactured habits. A century ago, few people regularly brushed their teeth multiple times a day. Today, because of canny advertising and public health campaigns, many Americans habitually give their pearly whites a cavity-preventing scrub twice a day, often with Colgate, Crest or one of the other brands advertising that no morning is complete without a minty-fresh mouth….

“For most of our history, we’ve sold newer and better products for habits that already existed,” said Dr. Berning, the P.& G. psychologist. “But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.”

Academics were also beginning to focus on habit formation. Researchers like Wendy Wood at Duke University and Brian Wansink at Cornell were examining how often smokers quit while vacationing and how much people eat when their plates are deceptively large or small.

Those and other studies revealed that as much as 45 percent of what we do every day is habitual — that is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of subtle cues.

For example, the urge to check e-mail or to grab a cookie is likely a habit with a specific prompt. Researchers found that most cues fall into four broad categories: a specific location or time of day, a certain series of actions, particular moods, or the company of specific people. The e-mail urge, for instance, probably occurs after you’ve finished reading a document or completed a certain kind of task. The cookie grab probably occurs when you’re walking out of the cafeteria, or feeling sluggish or blue."

Entrepreneurs should ask themselves the same question: How can they make their product a habit? In some cases, it helps to build off of habits that already exist, as the P&G psychologist mentions above. One example is Stardolls, an online version of playing with dolls, already a habit for many girls. Club Penguin relies on a metaphor of feeding and playing with your pet, again, already a habit for many of its young players. Digg relies on the habit of sharing interesting links. Relying on existing behavioral cues is always a good place to start.

For many startups, there are no existing behavioral cues, and they will have to find or create a cue that can habitualize their users. This sounds hard because it is hard. Changing consumer behavior is a very tough challenge. Your best bet will be to try to latch on to some existing habit and associate your product with that habit. This is exactly what happened with the case of washing hands in Ghana:

However, the studies also revealed an interesting paradox: Ghanaians used soap when they felt that their hands were dirty — after cooking with grease, for example, or after traveling into the city. This hand-washing habit, studies showed, was prompted by feelings of disgust. And, surveys also showed that parents felt deep concerns about exposing their children to anything disgusting.

SO the trick, Dr. Curtis and her colleagues realized, was to create a habit wherein people felt a sense of disgust that was cued by the toilet. That queasiness, in turn, could become a cue for soap.

A sense of bathroom disgust may seem natural, but in many places toilets are a symbol of cleanliness because they replaced pit latrines. So Dr. Curtis’s group had to create commercials that taught viewers to feel a habitual sense of unseemliness surrounding toilet use.

Their solution was ads showing mothers and children walking out of bathrooms with a glowing purple pigment on their hands that contaminated everything they touched.

The commercials, which began running in 2003, didn’t really sell soap use. Rather, they sold disgust. Soap was almost an afterthought — in one 55-second television commercial, actual soapy hand washing was shown only for 4 seconds. But the message was clear: The toilet cues worries of contamination, and that disgust, in turn, cues soap.

To read more, go to Jeremy's blog.

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