How to Harness Habits to Create Persuasive Marketing

Posted: Jul 25, 2017

At VI, we’ve been reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. The science behind how habits form and neurologically what takes place in your brain is fascinating. This has real implications for understanding (and persuading) consumer behavior.


Early on, habits are actually deliberate choices you make, but over time you will do them without thinking. They become second nature. In fact, a study conducted on rats showed that their mental activity actually decreased after learning the routine of how to navigate a maze. This makes so much sense, considering I can rarely remember my daily commute.

If habits are automatic behaviors – often influenced by urges we no longer recognize – it’s incredibly difficult to modify consumer behavior. However, it can be done if you apply these principles to make your marketing more effective:

  • Understand the context for a consumer’s behavior. This is essential because our brain “chunks” actions together that send us into auto-pilot. Like craving a cigarette with your coffee or dipping while driving. Or putting on running shoes before exercising. A simple cue can send us into a routine – for better or for worse – so we must know how, when and where consumers use a product or interact with a brand.

  • We all do things because of the perceived reward or benefit. If we want to change consumer behavior, we must find a new routine that satisfies old cues and rewards their urges. For me, when I put the kids in bed at 8 p.m. after a full day of work, I crave relaxation. Normally, my routine is to have a glass (or two) of wine. If I’m trying to change my habits to include less alcohol, I must substitute the wine for something else that relaxes me – a cup of hot tea, reading or taking a bath, for example. Effective marketing requires that we know the reward consumers crave, and position our product or service to satisfy that urge.

  • A person’s unique tendency influences their ability to form and stick to habits. Gretchen Rubin, a well-known author and podcast host, has identified four tendencies of how people respond to inner and outer expectations. You can take the quiz to find out if you’re an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner or Rebel. However, the marketing tactics and language you use to persuade consumer behavior will resonate differently with each tendency. Obligers need a lot of outer accountability, so highlighting a Quit Coach to help them quit smoking is key. Questioners love information, so arm them with research that supports your argument. Rebels reject all expectations, so they must feel they have the freedom to make a choice. And Upholders, well, we form habits pretty easily, but that has downsides too – often sticking to them at the cost of others’ feelings or changed circumstances.

When it comes to behavior modification, knowledge really is power. Understanding consumers’ cues, routines and rewards, as well as how to customize messaging for individuals’ uniqueness, will produce more persuasive and effective marketing.

(To learn more about VI's marketing services, click here.)

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