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Creature of Habit

I would venture to say that “habit” is my middle name, except that W.H.B. isn’t exactly as elegant a monogram as the one resulting from my true middle name: Edward. W.E.B. sounds so prophetic given that when I was born, webs were for spiders and spiders weren’t for search engines.

Whether or not it’s inculcated into my monogram, habit rules much of my life. I’m human, after all. As an extreme example, both my home and my workplace near Cincinnati are within easy access to two freeways. Heading north in the morning, I take the I75 route that travels the western part of the city; in the evening, I slip east and take I71 home.

Am I loyal to those routes, or am I a habitual driver? By the same line of thinking, am I loyal to the gas station where I fill my tank before hopping on those freeways, to the grocery that’s near one of the off-ramps near home, to the cards I use when making purchases at either—or am I just W.H.B.?

I ask these questions as I look at a couple of new loyalty initiatives that are designed—consciously or not—to develop consumer purchase or usage habits, one in high-frequency retail, and the other in credit card use. In each case, I was offered an attractive reward if I reached a certain level of spend, a level that clearly would involve a switch in spending patterns over a period of time—time enough to establish, yes, a habit. And given the habit-shattering times we live in, the situation is ripe for grabbing a share of consumer behavioral shifts.

The structure of each offer I recently encountered required a certain level of spend (a step-up increase, in each case), tallied on a per-month basis—not annually (as is typical with, say, retaining frequent-flyer elite status), not even quarterly. Such a requirement establishes a top-of-mind incentive to repeat performance until it becomes so ingrained that it doesn’t need to be top-of-mind anymore; it becomes an unconscious “decision.” I applaud the two efforts, particularly because one is clearly attrition defense after noticing that my spend with that brand slipped over recent months. I was losing the habit. But with habits come dangers—particularly if something jars the habitué into realizing the lack of value in doing-just-for-the-sake-of-doing.

To counter such dangers, be innovative, and consider these suggestions to avoid jarring your beloved creatures of habit:

Design for foundation of value, not simply habit. In each of these cases, the additional reward for increasing my activity a notch or three (and more about that in a moment) took the form of hard cash back, which was one of several benefits of the programs. I suspect I would have been even more receptive to an offer that refreshed more of the brand’s original foundation of value. I also suspect that I would have happily accepted a more complimentary reward by achieving the step-up—a recognition element that would create a memorable moment.

Devise relevant goals and thresholds, not out-of-character challenges. One of the two initiatives I describe here required not a step up, but a quantum leap that I doubted I could fulfill—and fulfill repeatedly, given the monthly requirement. The offer, shall we say, “didn’t know me.” Perhaps I had fallen into a large segment where most would view the increased activity as a step and not a leap. With proper segmentation and identification of specific patterns in my activities, I might have received an offer that would reward me for a 5 or 10% increase in spend, instead of the (I’m not kidding) 500%+ goal placed in front of me. Even more important than setting achievable goals is the matter of avoiding off-putting irrelevance.

And now that I think about that gas station and that grocery near my travel routes and the card I use in transacting with them, I realize that I am indeed a creature of loyalty and not habit. Elsewhere in the city, or when traveling, I seek those specific brands because I’m familiar with them and the goals and foundations of value they have supplied me—and with the way they have recognized and encouraged my allegiance. Simply put, when working to reclaim attrition-risk customers, increase the frequency of existing customers, or land the repeatable transactions of new customers, don’t simply ask consumers to change their habits. Make sure you go a bit further—with relevant goals, reminders of your value, and the occasional surprise—and ask them to make a habit of being loyal.

Bill Brohaugh

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One response to “Creature of Habit

  1. A key point here is value. If the new/enhanced program only benefits the retailer, then the consumer will see this pretty rapidly. Also program complexity can hurt loyalty and benefits. How many programs do you belong to that you receive marginal value from or become so confused by the rules that you redeem nothing? Eventually i’d observe this will drive people away as they seek to simplify all those cards and flyers in their lives.

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