Challenging subconscious habits

Can brands influence subconscious behavior?

The gap between ‘say v. do’ is getting bigger and bigger.

Choice. A word packed with seemingly infinite possibilities. In one study, consumers significantly underestimated how many food-related choices they made in a single day. Out of 200 actual choices they made (236 to be exact), the average consumer identified 15. [1]

What’s happening here?

With the increasing number of choices we have to make every day, our brain is trying to keep up, making rules that automate these decisions. And, because we’re always trying to get more out of life, we are unlikely to notice the automation as it happens.

The output? A larger, more obvious gap between what we say we do, versus what we actually do.

Mining the subconscious: how to move the machine (your mind)

How consumers think and feel – which impacts how they act – is highly motivated by the subconscious. With significant increases in choice and stimulus available to us today, shifting the subconscious is much more difficult. The brain is working harder than ever to help us make decisions on our daily behavior, in order to make space for new choices.

Put simply: the automation engine is running hot, making it even more important to understand how our decisions are influenced.

So, what creates the biases influencing our subconscious?

Behavioral economists, led by Daniel Kahneman, have helped to define the principles which shape and guide behavior (the brain’s automation) and which underpin many of the predetermined biases which consumers have.

Kahneman and his colleagues helped define key concepts including anchoring, framing, ego depletion and reciprocity bias. Anchoring is the cognitive bias which, during decision making, occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. We rely too heavily on, or are anchored too blindly by, one piece of information when making a decision.

For example, as a person looks to buy a used car, he or she may focus heavily on the mileage reading and model year of the car. This criterion may form the basis for evaluating the value of the car, rather than considering how well the engine or transmission is maintained.

All of these biases have a significant impact on how consumers make decisions every day. Retail strategy, store, and packaging design have been particularly influenced by research which demonstrates how shoppers anchor and frame in-store.

There is a wealth of data and research describing anchoring and these other biases (listed above) and how they influence behaviors. Moreover, many of these studies offer insight on how marketing strategists can influence particular mindsets and behaviors towards certain brands.

Failing to tackle consumer bias

We provide consumers with too many opportunities to go unchallenged in insight and strategic planning. We take them at their word in small groups, blindly believing that what we observe in ethnography is typical and expect longitudinal studies to reduce confirmation bias.

Instead of these interactions leading to new observations that stimulate ‘breakthrough insight’, often teams are left wanting… or worse, using outliers as their primary focus. This creates intuition-led analysis when really, we’re trying to explore something much more complex.

Challenging cleaning in homes

As convenience is the default driver of choice, a growing number of people are more likely to use the same general cleaning product for multiple surfaces, in order to simplify their process. This, despite the fact that these same consumers report in research about the sheer range of specialty items they purchase for specific kitchen cleaning needs.

In an attempt to challenge this behavior, we created an experiment to measure how often consumers clean their kitchen in order to learn how we could influence established cleaning habits.

Our team removed the vast majority of cleaning products from the consumers’ homes and limited the group to using three alternative products over the course of a week. We also used monitoring software to document how often they were cleaning particular areas of the kitchen, compared to their reported data.

What did we find?

The kitchen sink is still a major source of attention. Although people reported cleaning it 4-5 times a day, it was actually getting wiped down 10-12 times.

And what product were consumers using?

The trusty paper towel.

Uninsured positioning(s)

The obvious question.

Shouldn’t brand strategy be made and adapted to influence these existing consumer biases/behaviors?

With brands fighting for relevance, and marketers demanding to see activations that move behaviors more efficiently, strategy has to ensure it can influence bias. Let’s complete the story using the example of the cleaning brand…

The majority of cleaning brands are positioned on assurance and relative ‘cleaning power’. They are function-driven because many consumers at face value state that they need confidence the cleaner is killing germs, which likely ladders up to family safety. But assurance will not change behavior.

A brand looking to become a conscious choice and thus gain relevance in a new role must inject behavior change at the core of its positioning.

What if?

What if the brand was to adapt their promise to speak to ‘kitchen zen’?

Counter-intuitive it might be, but actually encouraging consumers to clean less and trust in the invisible cleaning power of the brand, could create just enough differentiation to help a brand stand apart in a crowded space – and most importantly, break consumers out of autopilot in the cleaning aisle.

In short, the consumer mindset (and subconscious) must be challenged in order to provide brands with the potential to shift behavior.

  • Be clear on the likely principles/rules which are automating decisions today
  • Explore past research for inspiration for how to move the mindset
  • Create fresh experiments for your context that contest existing behavior
  • Utilize learnings to continue adapting the brand positioning/purpose
[1] Wansink, Brian, and Jeffery Sobal. “Mindless eating the 200 daily food decisions we overlook.” Environment and Behavior 39.1 (2007): 106-123.