How to Overcome Brand Habits So Buyers Will Buy Your Products

04/16/2015 07:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

One problem marketers find difficult to overcome is how do you get buyers to choose your product when they are in the habit of buying other brands? Human habits are hard to break - especially if you are competing with a well-known (and liked) brand that has a good "relationship" with a significant segment of the market.

The big and powerful have failed to break habits too

Even large and powerful companies have failed to convince buyers to break brand habits and select their products. Back in the 70's IBM tried to unseat Xerox in copiers. They failed. In the 80's, Xerox tried to take market share away from IBM in the PC business. How many do you know that bought Xerox PCs? Microsoft has spent a small fortune trying to convince the marketplace that Bing is better than Google for search. How are they doing? Google+ is trying to unseat Facebook in social media. Where do most go to connect and share with friends? I could go on and on with other examples. The key issue is significant market segments are in the habit of choosing a particular brand, and if there is not a very strong and compelling reason to switch, most won't.

What are habits?

There are so many different ways to look at habits. When created by effective branding and communications strategies they are:

  1. Cognitive shortcuts to purchase. If you prefer Coca Cola and are in the habit of choosing it over other choices, you do not have to think much when you go to the market to buy cola. It saves you time and energy.
  2. Relationships between the seller's brand and buyers. When fans root for their favorite teams or wear clothing associated with that team, they are showing their relationship with the team and fellow fans. Even if they move to another city, it is hard for them to break the habit and root for another team - especially if it is an arch-rival.
  3. Status contributors. Certain buyers receive a contribution to their own personal brand when they identify with status brands. The association with the brand identifies them as a member of an exclusive club.

Neuroscience view of habits

When viewed in terms of physiology, habits are (1) grooves, (2) fortified connections or (3) well-worn paths in the brain. The benefit to the seller is that buyers are more likely to select your brand if it becomes a habit. The benefit to the buyer is it enables the buyer's brain to be relaxed so it is available for important decisions and emergencies.

What habits do for people

Habits speed up decision making much the same way that unclogged roads and freeways enable faster travel of moving vehicles. Before roads were built, vehicles had to find pathways through dense forests, brush or muddy fields. That took time, was often dangerous and usually caused damage to the vehicles involved. Habits form in the buyer's brain for similar reasons leading to quicker and safer buying decisions.

Why are they hard to break?

There are many reasons why habits are hard to break. Some of the more important ones are listed below.

  1. Physical connections. Once people develop habits, their decisions follow the grooves or established connections, in their brain. In fact, brain research shows that habits are stored, or ingrained, when the dendritic spine component of brain neurons are physically rebuilt. These physical changes make it harder for people to change habits.
  2. Switching costs. Another reason habits are hard to change is the switching costs can be prohibitive. To the brain, making a change takes it out of its comfort zone. There is a cost to switch from a Wintel standard computer to a Mac platform, and vice versa. The brain wants to stay in its comfort zone because it feels safer. It takes, time, money and effort to switch.
  3. Rationalization. Even if the habit is bad, the brain sometimes rationalizes that it is safer doing what you have been doing since making the change might harm you. This is sort of the thought process people go through when the doctor recommends an operation, but you are thinking that you can die as a result of the operation. Most pick what they believe is the lesser of two evils.

Hard does not mean impossible

Good marketers know how to break through habit barriers because they (1) understand why people have them, (2) appreciate the difficulty of changing them, and (3) they have experience doing the necessary non-invasive brain surgery to counteract them. Too many marketers fail because the do not understand these issues. They presume that it will be easy to convince buyers to switch if they point out the "neat" features their products have that their competitors don't. Apple smartphone competitors continue to use this tact with little success.

How to break buyer habits so they'll switch to your brand

It is conceptually easy to break buyer habits so they'll switch to your brand. You have to apply a sufficiently strong marketing force using the following primary building-block strategies to pull buyers out of the "habit groove" and break the strong bonds they have with other brands.

  1. Marketing Information System. Use a marketing information system to find out what buyers want that they are not getting from the brands they typically buy.
  2. Branding. Devise a branding strategy that positions your products as having sufficiently unique and important capabilities that (1) your target audience wants but (2) your competitors do not provide.
  3. Product. Develop products (including technologies) that meet or exceed the expectations promised by your branding strategy.
  4. Communications. Create promotion strategies that clearly communicate the compelling benefits of your products so that members of the target audience will understand why they should (1) buy products from you and (2) break the habit of buying them from your competitors.

Some examples of habit breakers

There are so many examples of brands that successfully broke habits and took brand positions away from competitors. The following are just a few of them.

Google. Google entered the search engine market after Infoseek, AltaVista, Excite, HotBot and Yahoo! were already providing search services on the Internet. Google unseated them with a very easy-to-use, uncluttered home page that performed searches easier and better. Google broke any habits that had formed with the other search engines and made it easy to switch. The word spread quickly. Microsoft's Bing has come long after the Google habit was formed and has been unable to make any significant dent in the use of Google for searches.

Facebook. Friendster, MySpace and others predated Facebook in social networking. Yet, Facebook grew faster and became synonymous with social networking because it gave its users more of what they wanted. Google developed Google+ to unseat Facebook, but Google has not provided the marketplace with sufficiently compelling reasons for users to switch.

Apple. Starting with the iPod (and perhaps the iMac), Apple created products with compelling designs that got buyers to take notice and spread the positive word about them. With the iPhone, they created a smartphone that was also a portable computer. It had sufficiently unique capabilities because developers could supply Apps so the phone could do just about anything it was programmed to do. This disrupted a marketplace that was dominated by Nokia and RIM, and caused these established companies to rapidly lose market share and dominance. The habits were broken. RIM, now Blackberry, has been looking for buyers, and Nokia sold its handset business to Microsoft.

Uber. Uber started in 2009 to fill the needs of those that were in the habit of using taxicabs and shuttles for short-distance, on-demand transportation. Uber disrupted the taxi and shuttle businesses by offering a more convenient alternative that (1) does not require tips or cash fares and (2) is less expensive during off-peak demand periods. As a result of its early success, this young start-up is already valued between $17 and $18.2 billion - greater than the value of Hertz and triple that of Avis.

What if your product uses a new technology the marketplace will find difficult to understand?

When the automobile was introduced, most did not know what the term automobile meant. They were in the habit moving from place to place on bicycles, horses or carriages pulled by horses. Therefore, the early automobile was called a horseless carriage. Similarly, when the telephone and telegraph were introduced, they were called the "wireless" since most did not know what "telephone" and "telegraph" meant, but they were accustomed to communicating over wires. So if you develop a new product based on a new technology that is difficult for the average person to understand, you might describe it in terms of the older technology it replaces. This strategy may be necessary to supplant the old habit with a newer one.

To introduce a new product that breaks habits

If you want to introduce a new product that is likely to break ingrained brand habits, you should expect that it will not be easy. People are not going to automatically understand the benefits and advantages you know unless you can position and communicate them effectively. I hope this post gives you the information you need to feel comfortable with the process. It is not easy, but also not that difficult if you if you are able to execute the proper marketing strategies delineated above. I wish you the best of luck.