Neale Martin, Ph.D., Professor of Innovation Management at the Coles College of Business, Kennesaw State University, is creating a centre for the study of unconscious consumer behaviour and habit-based marketing. He is the author of ‘Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore', and delves deep into neuroscience, cognitive and behavioural psychology, and behavioural economics, as CEO of Sublime Behaviour Marketing and Ntelec Inc. An expert in consumer behaviour, customer satisfaction, and bridging the gap between new technologies and markets, Prof. Martin has worked with companies such as Verizon, Sprint, Motorola, Samsung, Texas Instruments, Cisco, P&G, SC Johnson, Eli Lilly and Pfizer, among others. In India recently to address Godrej employees on Habit-Based Marketing, Prof. Martin interacted with BrandLine, on a host of topics, starting with marketing to the subconscious mind. Excerpts:

How does one measure the subconscious consumer behaviour that defines his/ her actions?

Subconscious behaviour (or as we say, unconscious) is processed below conscious awareness, making it difficult to access via questions or surveys. But there are several ways we can measure it.

One is through simple observation. Unconscious behaviour, such as habitual behaviour, is processed in the limbic region of the brain, meaning we react faster unconsciously than consciously. Purchases that are made in just a second or two are almost certainly unconscious. Marketers use ethnographic observation (based on anthropological methods) to get at this kind of information. We can also use video capture in the store to get this information.

Another method to assess unconscious behaviour is biometric analysis. By measuring changes in the heart rate, galvanic skin response (sweat), blood pressure, eye tracking, pupil dilation, and brain activity (EEG), we get valuable insights into how unconscious factors influence behaviour.

Is the subconscious manifest in habits? If yes, is there a science that allows us to understand this? To what extent and how accurate is it?

Over the past 10 years, scientists and researchers from multiple disciplines have advanced our understanding of habitual behaviour to brain science.

Based originally on work by MIT scientist Ann Graybiel, habits result from strengthening of neural pathways in the basal ganglia. Essentially, when we have repeated a behaviour enough times in a stable context, our minds convert these experiences into scripts that can be triggered by cues in the environment. Work by Wendy Wood, Ph.D. (social psychology, University of Southern California) showed that people do the same things, in the same place most days while thinking about something completely unrelated more than 45 per cent of the time. Work by John Bargh at Yale, Tanya Chartrand at Duke, and Ap Dijksterhuis at Radbound University Nijmegen have published extensively on their work in unconscious consumer behaviour, including priming and mimicry. 

You mention that 85 per cent of new products fail, and consumer satisfaction does not equal loyalty. Is consumer satisfaction a necessary layer upon which loyalty can be built? Please explain.

There is very little correlation between customer satisfaction and repurchase or loyalty. When we focus on behaviour, we see that loyal customers are sometimes highly brand-loyal, but sometimes they are brand-indifferent. In both cases, satisfaction is not a good indicator of behaviour. In many studies of brand switching, switchers reported high satisfaction with a brand or store just before defecting. When behaviour becomes habitual, it is no longer tied to goals or intentions, so satisfaction measures become essentially meaningless. 

However, customer dissatisfaction is different. If a customer perceives she is dissatisfied, this makes her consciously aware and can disrupt even the most habitual repurchase behaviour. 

The statistics around new product failures are truly humbling — estimates are that 80 to 90 per cent of new products fail. Even products that receive great reviews in testing, flop once introduced. The primary problem is that new products are often overlooked in the store because shoppers are on autopilot at point of purchase, completely overlooking the new product. Many companies have sophisticated methods to create, screen and launch new products. But even if potential customers report they will probably or definitely buy a new product, they often fail to purchase when the product is released (one of my clients stated that they have a 90 per cent threshold for definitely or probably would buy, only 3 per cent actually purchased).  

How have these three categories evinced interest in habit-based marketing: (i) FMCG (ii) pharma and (iii) retail? What makes understanding the nuances of habit-based marketing critical for each of them?

Many of the world's leading FMCG companies have come around to recognising the importance of habits in their consumers' behaviour. This recognition has come from two directions: advances in marketing and marketing-related research; their own experience.

The same research that caused me to write the book has influenced heads of marketing research and consumer/shopper insights organisations to reconsider the assumptions that have guided them for decades. While these companies have serious growth goals, most of their new products fail or grossly under-perform expectations, much of their market research yields little useful information, and traditional models don't enlighten their efforts regarding Twitter, blogs, and social media.

In the US, roughly one in four prescriptions are never filled, and 50 per cent of filled prescriptions are not taken to completion. There are several unconscious factors at play, and many are habit-related. But the problem goes far beyond simply people forgetting to take their medicine. There are numerous emotional and attitudinal factors at play that influence consumers to reduce taking prescription drugs.

The pharmaceutical companies that have approached me are interested in a better understanding of the patient's life and behaviour so they can better position themselves as part of an integrated treatment plan. For example, companies that make drugs for diabetes realise they need to understand patient behaviour, which is heavily guided by unconscious mental processes. Relationships with food are very powerful, often tied up in culture, identity, pleasure, emotion, and reward. 

For retail, the interest is keen because most shopping behaviour can be seen to be habitual. Retailers know that customers follow the same path every time they enter a store, and purchase the same products over and over.

India is experiencing a dramatic growth in supermarkets, and Indian consumers are developing new habits. There are multiple areas within the brain that are involved. One section of the brain maps the environment; this process is very active when experiencing a new physical environment.

After a consumer has visited a store multiple times, the brain has evolved a highly detailed map that keeps the shopper oriented, freeing up more mental resources for shopping.

Similarly, once a consumer has purchased the same brand multiple times, this behaviour becomes highly automated requiring little conscious processing. Essentially, the conscious mind can only think about one thing at a time and hands-off routine decisions to the habitual mind. This means that a consumer's mind will be in varying cognitive modes as they move around a store, what we classify as ‘pilot' (conscious processing), ‘co-pilot' (using rules of thumb or heuristics), and ‘autopilot' (automatic or habitual behaviour).  

Any specific examples?

We did work with a large food manufacturer using cutting-edge biometric and ethnographic methods to see how consumers were reacting to the particular aisle where their products reside. We wanted to match what the customer was looking at with what they were thinking and feeling. What we discovered was that consumers look at two-foot by two-foot blocks at a time, but that if the products on the shelf are not organised well, their eyes flit around without being able to cognitively process the information.

This creates lack of engagement and a desire to quickly move on. Marketers need to understand that success comes from successfully integrating every phase of marketing to work with both the conscious and unconscious minds of the consumer.

(This article was published on February 23, 2011)
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