Experiential marketing: Breaking the habits of a lifetime

We’re all creatures of habit.

We frequent fewer than 25 places in our day to day lives, and form close relationships with five people. We walk around the supermarket and put exactly the same things in our trolleys, week in week out. We stick with the same brands, because – well, better the devil you know.

The challenge for brands is in breaking those habits.

They’re up against a fundamental principle of human psychology: risk aversion. Change means a loss of control over our circumstances, a loss of face as the things we’re used to become less than desirable, and a concern that the new way of doing things won’t work. Understand that and you understand why most of us prefer a sure outcome, avoiding the grey area where things might or might not be OK.

There’s another factor coming in the opposite direction. Habits are efficient: we form them because they’re more efficient than processing situations and making decisions as though it’s our first time every time. The cognitive loop between cue, routine and reward becomes encoded in our procedural memory, and we keep doing the thing that worked the first few times we did it.

For many brands – particularly new ones, but also incumbents with similarly-sized rivals – these are the deep seated psychological routines that you’re fighting against when you’re trying to get consumers to try a new product.

Why would they change? Why would they want your product over the one they always get?

How brands break the habit

A change in habitual buying patterns can be extraordinarily powerful. The same study which identified the 25 place limit also revealed that people can change. It’s the number of places that stays constant – if people start to frequent a new place, they usually stop going to another, and the overall number of regular haunts stays the same. In other words, if you can persuade people to buy a new product a few times, it can become part of their routine.

The Sainsbury’s “Try something new today” campaign was aiming for £2.5 billion in revenue growth – and achieved it when they worked out that this target boiled down to a trifling £1.14 per customer. Encouraging every customer to pick up one thing they wouldn’t normally consider made the difference, permeating Sainsbury’s marketing messaging and increasing profits by 43%.

It worked because Sainsbury’s understood how people shop: they do it on autopilot, paying so little attention to their surroundings that a literal man in a gorilla suit can pass them by. The supermarket looked into why routine ruled the day in food shopping, and found that 74% of their customers cooked the same things every week, lacking practical inspiration for midweek meals.

Sainsbury’s offered simple ideas for upgraded recipes – adding an ingredient to the sort of meals people throw together on a rainy Tuesday night – in a convenient form, with idea cards at the store entrance and point of sale displays reinforcing the suggestions. They made the change small and simple and easy to execute, showing that there was another way to do things – even if it’s just adding apples to sausages.

It’s these small touches that disrupt habitual thinking, presenting a small change that makes people re-appraise their automatic decisions and think, “is this really the most efficient thing to do?” Pack design – something that’s visually distinctive and makes a disruptive claim – can do the trick, as can apparent innovation, but there’s still an awful lot of noise on the shelves, and the boldest of signals will often struggle to cut through.

The experiential answer

A great experiential campaign can cut through all of this. Real change can come through the personal experience of the consumer, disrupting their routine more directly and offering more incentives to try something different.

Yes, the potential purchaser has to like the product, but a great experiential campaign can create the right environment for enjoyment. Activating all five senses goes further than reaching out to one. Smell and taste in particular are powerful disruptors of the day to day shopping experience, and become the basis for significant memories, experiences around which a future habit can be formed. If the experience can posit a single, repeatable action that ties to a predictable, repeatable cue, the habit formation process can begin within days.

The key to changing habits, according to behavioural analysts at the Interaction Design Foundation, is to identify the cue and reward that reinforce the behaviour, and substitute them with something else. An enjoyable, active, easily repeatable experience can become a new reward – the challenge for experiential marketers, really, is to put their product into the context of the customer’s life, attaching that reward to a new cue.

There are few marketing options that can break and remake customer habits in one go, but experiential marketing comes close. At the very least, it can disrupt the routine into which shoppers fall and take them off purchase autopilot, putting them in a position where they have to make and evaluate a choice – and that’s the stuff of which a future buying habit is made.

Image credit: (CC) Tnarik Innael, via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tnarik/2238942024