Habits of Mind: 4 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Maze-Running Rat

There was a fascinating article published in this Sunday’s NYT magazine titled “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” but it could have easily had at least three other titles that centered your focus differently, including “Habits of Mind” and “How Not to Become a Marketing Rat” (my friends at HubSpot would tell me that none of these titles are highly effective because I don’t have a number in the title, as in 4 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Marketing Rat, but I haven’t adopted that habit just yet).

This article is fascinating for a number of reasons:

  1. It is instructive to think about the amount of data that companies are collecting about our purchases and the accompanying “predictive analytics” that attempts to presage our buying behaviors.  It gives me pause as a marketer when I think about the dearth of customer insight that B2B customers have.  Oh sure, we look at market size, competition, unmet needs, and even deep research around specific solutions.  But the point-of-purchase data-collection that loyalty programs enable (you know, that little dongle that’s on your key ring that you fork over to get a “discount”, is an act of self-identification that enables purchase tracking) is generally missing from B2B.  While Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software has been broadly available for decades, the most successful ones piggy-back onto enterprise systems tailored to support order efficiency, inventory management, and production forecasting and fulfillment – not generating deep insight into buyer behavior.
  2. Repeated tasks become automatic (read: habits) and when this occurs – neurological activity, thinking, and discernment are reduced.  We know this to be true not only because of the sensors that were stuck in maze-running rats over at MIT in the brain and cognitive science department, but also because of our own experience.  Driving to work, reaching for your smartphone to check a message, taking a shower…from mundane to complex, we are attentive at the beginning and end of these tasks but in the middle, we too run the maze on autopilot.  Or in the words of the Times author, “once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making”.  Putting my marketing hat back on, I wonder how many habits we and our companies have learned about marketing.  Take for instance New Product Introductions (NPIs), where over time a well-worn path has been established to create a data sheet, brochure, print ad and a press release.  In regulated industries, a company’s quality system may have even enshrined some of these deliverables.  But what if the formative “three step loop” of habit creation, cue (new product), routine (traditional NPI deliverables) and reward (product intro), is no longer providing the expected results?  Can we break the habit and move to a marketing mix that blends inbound marketing with outbound marketing?
  3.  Focusing on customer habits as opportunities to insert your product or service may miss the mark as it doesn’t necessarily identify customer motivation or high-level needs.  The Febreze story in the article is a great cautionary tale.  It shows that while P & G was focused on neutralizing odors and  getting Febreze adopted into the cue (bad smell)-routine (spray Febreze)-reward (bad smell bye-bye) cycle, that’s not necessarily how people are wired.  First, odor habituation is working against this model.  Secondly, if I love Fluffy, might I have a stake, either consciously or subconsciously, in minimizing the negative smell?  Finally, it’s really hard to create a new or replace a existing habit in your customers.  Think about how long it’s taking to replace paper medical records or film-based x-rays.  Again, if the focus of inquiry is close to the product or service, you may miss the dominating higher-level needs or motivations.  Check out how Febreze ended up changing their marketing approach to become a billion-dollar franchise.
  4. Finally, and to the motivation for this article:  Research has demonstrated that “simply understanding how habits work makes then easier to control”.  Awareness is key and emboldened by the research at Columbia University and U of Alberta, we can revise our personal habits, corporate/marketing habits, and habits of minds.