How Marketers Create Craving In 3 Easy Steps

Photo by Alberto Garcia via Flickr

"The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. 
"First, there is a cue....  
"Then there is the routine... 
"Finally, there is a reward... 
"Over time, this loop...becomes more and more automatic....until a sense of craving emerges." 

 - C. Duhigg, "How Companies Learn Your Secrets" (The New York Times)

A good marketer knows how to make people want something badly enough to pay for it. A great marketer knows how to sell it to them over and over again. And an extraordinary marketer gets them to prefer one specific kind of thing, the branded thing, over an equivalent item for which they could have paid half as much.

Most of us will never be extraordinary at marketing - only a select few will rise to attain the status of a Steve Jobs or a Howard Schultz. But it is possible to rise above just being "good." You can learn to make customers crave things if you learn to understand the science of habit. (And in the process you could lose a few pounds along the way.)

For Duhigg it was the 3:30 cookie. He had a habit of getting up from his chair every day at that time to eat and socialize. The cue was the time of day; the routine (the non-thinking part) was to eat the cookie and gossip; and there were multiple rewards: social interaction, information, and undoubtedly a great sugar rush.

The bad habit cost him nearly 10 pounds.

He tried to change his ways but could not. Until he used the science of habit formation and re-formation, as used by master marketers at Procter & Gamble to turn the odor neutralizer Febreze into a megahit. Basically, he kept Steps 1 and 3 and reworked the "mindless" part, the habitual Step 2:
"To shift the routine — to socialize, rather than eat a cookie — I needed to piggyback on an existing habit. So now, every day around 3:30, I stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, then go back to my desk. The cue and reward have stayed the same. Only the routine has shifted."
Think about how "getting a cup of coffee on the way to work" is a social habit deeply encouraged by marketers. How did they get us out of the "olden days" when people made coffee at home because "The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup."

How did they "encourage" (brainwash?) the nation into paying $2 or more a day for a cup of coffee they could easily make just as easily and well for themselves?

Easy! They not only followed, but improved the original habit cycle - by using an entrenched habit (drinking coffee) and making the routine easier as well as adding a social element, as follows:
Old Way
  • Cue: Wake up
  • Routine: Brew coffee, drink it, clean up
  • Reward: Alertness, sense of preparation for the day
New Way

  • Cue: Wake up
  • Routine: Wait on line for a fresh, hot cup of coffee that someone has made just for you
  • Reward: Alertness, social status, belonging, sense of preparation, and NO messy clean-up
Can you say slam-dunk?

Of course it is not so simple to create or change habits, but when it comes to marketing, remembering the "cue-routine-reward" loop can be incredibly helpful in shortcutting the puzzling process of determining what people want and how to break through the clutter.

 As follows:
  • Step 1: Find an entrenched cue-routine-reward cycle to break into - rather than introducing a product seemingly "out of nowhere." (For example, nighttime TV viewing; organizing meetings; exercising)
  • Step 2: Narrow down how you want to alter the routine - add (like adding Febreze to the cleaning routine); change (like having people use cleaning wipes instead of spray cleaners); or eliminate (like having to empty the dustpan after sweeping the floor)?
  • Step 3: Articulate a short-term reward for doing things the new way - something the user will get every single time. For example, they will save so much time by using cleaning wipes instead of spray that they will feel a rush of joy at how quick it went. (Don't just make this up in your head - watch people, observe.)

As it turns out, scientific research has shown that habit-formation is affected by our brain cells. An article published in the Wall Street Journal ("How Habits Hold Us,") Feb. 18 discussed the research of Joe Z. Tsien and colleagues at Georgia Health Sciences University. They learned that mice deficient in "an NMDA receptor on their dopamine neurons" didn't really care, in an experiment, about the reward they would get for overeating - they just stopped when they were full.

One can argue about whether it's socially helpful or unhelpful to lure people into changing their habits. I can see both sides of that argument. Either way, it is good to know how to train the brain, if only for yourself.

It is true. No matter how many times you have failed before, a lifetime of seemingly unbreakable bad habits indeed can be broken. All it takes is an understanding of what triggers you, a recognition that the resulting behavior is bad, an appreciation of the reward that you get, and a substitution of a more positive habit for the bad one.

Here's hoping that you use your power to "create craving" responsibly and well.

Good luck!
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