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New World, New Rules


45% of our behaviour is habitual. We make the same decisions every day without full conscious thought. Simply repeating an action consistently in the same context means this action is activated when exposed to the same cue.

Getting in the car is the cue for putting on a seatbelt. Getting up is the cue for making a coffee. When a behaviour is repeated enough, a habit is formed. They don’t rely on motivation, but persist long after we lose interest. We do and buy the same things over and over, without a second thought. 

Habits are hard to break, but they rely on context. So when our environment changes, habits are loosened. Life events like marriage, divorce, new homes and new jobs all prompt a change in our routine. New situations force our brain out of its comfort zone, and so we think differently. 

These moments are rare, and incredibly important. Richard Shotton and Laura Weston’s survey of 2,370 consumers illustrated just this. Participants were asked what life events they had undergone recently, and if they had changed brands in 10 specified categories. For every single one, consumers were more likely to switch brands when they had undergone a life event. To benefit from this effect, marketers were urged to identify when these moments have taken place. But thanks to our current climate, that’s been done for you. 

Before, we relied heavily on what Kahneman and Tversky coined “System 1” thinking. “System 1″ is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. “System 2” is also lazy. It’s the brainpower you engage when you solve a big sum or try to parallel park. So for the most part, we’re happy to think without thinking. 

That is, until everything changes. We’re now unable to default fully to fast instinctive thinking. Our habits and routines have been ruptured. Instead of mindlessly choosing a brand we always have, we’re taking the time to analyse our options. Can I afford this? Is it good for me? Do I actually like it? 

We’d been desperate to crack the system 1 code. Becoming the no-brainer purchase was the greatest success a brand could achieve. But now, we need to work out how to apply to slow thinking. A 2014 study found people search for meaning when they approach a new decade in chronological age. Our society divides life into 10 year periods; twenties, thirties, forties, fifties. So when we enter the final year of a decade, we re-evaluate. 

Perhaps this period of isolation will prompt self-reflection in the same way? Previously the opportunity for brands was to be the intuitive choice, to simply grab our attention. That’s changing. We’re increasingly more receptive, open to messaging we might not have considered before. There’s an opportunity not only for brands to become consumer’s instinctive purchase, but a chance to appeal to “System 2”, entrenching yourself as the reasoned, logical option. 

For now, our minds are open. We’ve been shaken out of our automatic behaviour. And brands demonstrating integrity and empathy are capturing our attention. Resources like Did They Help? are supplying greater transparency than ever before. The Co-op, admirably, has created 5,000 jobs for those who lost work to coronavirus, and has donated £5.5m to relief efforts. Luxury goods firm LVMH was early to announce that it was shifting to more responsive production, supplying hand sanitizer for hospitals rather than cosmetics for wealthy customers.

What’s resonating with consumers are brands taking action, not the one’s riding out the storm.

This is the time to rip up your existing programme. Be proactive, be pragmatic and react to what’s happening in a human way. Like Rishi Sunak said: ‘Now, more than any time in history, we will be judged by our capacity for compassion.’ So communicate yours, before habits harden once more.