When launching a new product, don’t fight consumer habits

Martin Kovacs /

Marketers struggling with consumer resistance to new products should be trying to leverage consumer behaviour rather than fight against it, research shows.

The research, outlined by Wendy Wood, a provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, at INSEAD Knowledge, examines passive consumer resistance.

While most forms of consumer resistance are active, Wood studied a passive form of resistance described as “habit slips”, which emerges when “when consumers fail to adopt a new product by sheer force of habit”.

Undertaking the research with the University of Southern California’s Jennifer Labrecque, along with non-academic partners, Wood explains their paper, published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Sciences, shows how “unintentionally slipping back into old habits is the most common reason why consumers rarely use a new product despite their best intentions”.

“However, we also find that marketers can promote the use of a new product by encouraging consumers to integrate it into their existing routines,” she writes.

“In short, habit is a powerful force that marketers should leverage, not fight.”

Old habits can be hard to break

The researchers conducted a survey in which 150 participants, recruited via the MTurk marketplace, named two products they had purchased in the last six months, one they used regularly and one they didn’t use regularly, despite intending to.

Asked to choose one of 13 reasons as to why they rarely used the second product, 25% of participants answered: “I fell back on my old habit and did what I used to do”. This was the most common answer.

In a following study, the researchers split 70 college students into three groups to trial a new fabric refresher that conflicted with their existing habits, with the first group told to use it on clothes they had already worn and wanted to wear again.

The second and third groups were asked to do the same, with the second asked to specify when, where and how they would use it, and the third told to use the fabric refresher as a direct substitute to their existing routines.

Because it was tied to their existing habit, the third group was the most successful at using the new product; they used it 19% more often than the control group. The second group’s usage was similar to the control group.

“We also confirmed that study participants with strong, clear-cut laundry habits tended to fall back on their usual routine, regardless of their intention to use the new product and their positive evaluation of it,” Wood writes.

“Habit slips are akin to glitches in the rational control of behaviour. Even when consumers fully intend to use a new product they like, old habits get in the way.”

Wood suggests the findings indicate “the importance of studying barriers to adoption within the context of consumers’ daily lives”, advising that rather than “fighting consumer habits, marketers should think of ways to leverage them”.

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Martin Kovacs

Martin Kovacs is a journalist with experience covering the IT, consumer electronics, retail, finance and energy sectors.

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