Courtney Eckerle

Charles Duhigg on How You Can Use Habit to Influence Customer Behavior

March 8th, 2016

“Although we think of ourselves as people who can make decisions, and in control of our own lives, 40 to 45 percent of what we do every day is a habit. It’s something that happens almost subconsciously,” Charles Duhigg, best-selling author, The Power of Habit, said in the Media Center at MarketingSherpa Summit 2016

Right now, he added, we are going through a golden age of understanding the neurology of habit formation.

“Which is great, if you’re … a marketer who wants to influence what people are doing with their time or their money,” he said.

A central insight of this, is that every habit has three components that it is made up of.

  • Cue: A trigger for an automatic behavior to start
  • Routine: The behavior itself, what we usually think of as habits
  • Reward: The gratification from performing the habit.

“What we’ve learned is that these cues and these rewards are really the important parts of what influences how people behave,” he said. “If we figure out how to diagnose these cues and rewards, we can change how people behave.”

He gave the example of a German company who experimented with getting people to exercise more — the holy grail of habits to form — and how they utilized these three components.

“They took a small portion of this audience … and they said, we want you to pick an obvious cue. Put your running shoes by your bed so you see them in the morning,” he said, adding that when people were done exercising, they should immediately give themselves a small piece of chocolate.

“What the German scientists figured was, that if they could somehow develop this reward instinct, then people could develop a habit around exercise more easily,” he said.

After tracking down the study participants six months later, they realized that about 18% of those who had not been told to form a habit were still exercising, while 24% of those who were trained to form a habit around exercise were still successful.

“Over time, their brain cut a deeper groove around this routine and reward, so as a result, the behavior became more and more automatic,” he said.

There are a couple of questions marketers have to ask themselves ahead of time in order to give customers a similar habit, Charles said.


Question #1. What cue can we give our customers?

“We know that the most successful products are the ones that have these obvious cues,” he said, giving the example of the success of the iPhone.

“One of the things that Apple found … is that when they started making these things vibrate in our pocket, or ding, when we got a text or an email, that’s when people started pulling them out of their pocket and checking them without even really thinking about it,” he said.

Marketers have to give customers a cue that “it’s almost impossible to ignore,” Charles said, and something that will remind them that it is time for a specific behavior, even on a subconscious level.


Question #2. What reward will appeal to our customers?

“You have to give them a reward that they actually want,” Charles said.

There are a thousand examples, he added, of people in a conference room deciding to give away meaningless rewards like crowns or points, but “when you talk to people, they say, ‘I don’t really care about crowns or becoming the mayor of my pizza store … there’s no reward value in that for me,’” he said.

It’s easier said than done, but marketers have to find a reward that customers will actually find rewarding.

“The more explicitly you think about [value proposition] and the more explicitly you think about delivering that, after the behavior that you’re trying to encourage, the more it will become automatic,” Charles said.

There is an art, he concluded, to figuring out how to “create these habits, and at the core of it is breaking down these individual behaviors.”


Join us on March 9 for the post-Summit wrap-up webinar where — in only one hour  the MarketingSherpa Editorial Team will discuss Charles Duhigg’s full presentation alongside more inspirational and actionable lessons from this year’s two-day event.


You can follow Courtney Eckerle, Managing Editor, MarketingSherpa, on Twitter at @CourtneyEckerle.


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Courtney Eckerle

About Courtney Eckerle

With a focus on aspirational, customer-first marketing, Courtney’s goal has been to produce clear, interesting and actionable external content for MarketingSherpa readers. This has included writing over 300 case studies, moderating live event interviews, and producing video content. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, Mass Communications and Film Studies from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., and was a correspondent for USA Today College prior to joining MECLABS Institute.

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