Since time immemorial man has been a slave to habit. Neale Martin in his book Habits makes contemporary references to habits of consumers important to marketers.

In an emerging market such as India with diverse cultural habits, insights into habits can provide valuable triggers to brand managers. The power of habits is that they are recognised more at the subconscious level than at the conscious level.

Gerald Zaltman's research reflects that consumers get 95 per cent of their inputs for decision-making from the subconscious. Brands that become a part of consumers' habits in any sphere of their life are likely to enjoy a high degree of brand loyalty.

Another challenge that habits pose to marketers is the manner in which the latter need to adapt themselves to ensure the habits are in tune with the changing lifestyles of consumers.

For several decades, Robin Blue powder provided the bluish tinge to white clothes and was a household name. Ujala, with its liquid form, became a part of the “whitening habit” in several households using the ease of usage in the entrenched cultural habit.

Youngsters using Nokia phones and downloading music from its Ovi store are likely to continue with Ovi as it is likely to become a part of the habit of using the mobile phone to download music.

Café Coffee Day has a strong base of loyal followers as the brand is a part of the socialising habit among urban youngsters and executives.

It is interesting to note that several decades ago Indian Coffee House (run by the Coffee Board in several cities) was a part of the socialising habit of youngsters of the bygone era.

Habits have not changed in this domain of socialising: Café Coffee Day has brought in several contemporary dimensions that matter to the lifestyle of today's youngsters. Marketers need to explore the linkages between habits, product category and the brand becoming a part of the habit associated with the category.

Concepts are timeless

While brand strategists may decide to add a layer of habit-associated behavioural dimension, the effective combination of habits, brand associations and brand loyalty can be explained using the classical concepts associated with learning.

Classical conditioning, one of the theories about learning, is associated with reinforcing brand associations.

Instrumental learning, another theory associated with learning, reinforces rewards and makes consumers repeat behaviour that lead to rewards (benefits of buying a product or service).

While the taste of coffee may be rewarding and recognised at the conscious level by consumers, the habit of having coffee with a specific brand gets reinforced over a period of time by instrumental conditioning and classical conditioning (that reinforces the associations of the brand with taste). This is the combination that ensures that most consumers have a favourite brand of coffee (whether a local brand or a national brand).

Case study from coffee

Bru is an instant brand of coffee (that could be readily mixed without the traditional process of brewing it). The brand had effectively built up the ‘South Indian filter coffee' stereotype, popular all over the country.

It is not uncommon to find consumers from other parts of India savouring south Indian coffee when they are in the southern part of the country.

Over a period of time Bru brought in certain lifestyle associations that were in tune with the changes in everyday life and ones that supplemented the well-entrenched filter coffee associations with the brand.

These associations (highlighting convenience of usage in an era where consumers are hard-pressed for time ) may have even worked to the extent of some consumers overcoming their desire to go through the filter-coffee ritual - associated with the taste of coffee.

The brand's subsequent advertising campaigns (multiple episode campaigns) has strengthened the brand's association with the habit of coffee-drinking.

One episode shows a retired middle-class man raving about Bru, saying it is difficult to give up the “Bru habit”; another episode reflects a young daughter-in-law expressing a similar sentiment (implicit in Indian culture is the assumption that a girl marrying into a family is required to adopt the in-laws' habits, especially in middle-class families); yet another advertisement reflects a young wife complimenting the “Bru habit” in strengthening her relationship with her husband over a period of time.

Bru's strategy on brand reinforcement and revitalisation seems to have habits as its core aspect.

Stock keeping units (pack sizes and variants), distribution and several other aspects of the marketing mix elements are important for a brand's success.

But the creation and nurturing of the brand's associations, adapting to changes in the consumer's lifestyles, sustaining the linkages between the brand, category and consumer habits have been the anchor on which the strategy is formulated.

Tea bags have been around in the country for the last three decades. It is interesting to note that the diffusion of tea bags has not been as rapid as marketers would have liked it to be.

There may be several reasons why it may not have happened but insights from consumer habits concerning tea consumption are extremely important in a country where tea drinking probably typifies what a habit is all about!

There may be several consumer behaviour concepts associated with habits and they need to be researched to explore new insights.

India probably has more cultural nuances than most developed countries and habits are yet another dimension that may contribute to a brand's strategy.

It is time marketers develop the habit of thinking conceptually.

(Ramesh Kumar is Professor of Marketing, IIM, Bangalore.)

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