James Clifton, Group Chief Executive at The MISSION Group, on why brands must aim to help us form new habits in this altered, COVID-dominated landscape
How’s your day? I don’t mean that in the usual sense, as a proxy for your mood, but in the more literal sense of: What are your daily habits and rituals, and are they conforming to their normal pattern?
Most of us have had our normal daily routine turned upside down due to the constraints of our bizarre Covid-2020 existence. It looks like the disruption is going to be with us for some time yet. Do not adjust your set: Normal service may never be resumed.
This feels frustrating, in part, because humans are, largely, creatures of habit. We tend to find comfort in routines and the structure these lend our lives while allowing us to hang other things off them. It may mean gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays, pizza on Wednesdays, and movies on Saturdays but, whatever the specific choices, even the most anarchic soul usually has some habits they repeat; even if it’s just parking in the same spot.
This doesn’t make us boring or unimaginative. It helps us all to find a groove that makes things work, that triggers a teeny dopamine release, that makes us happy or at least content and helps the day glide a little more smoothly, leaving time to deal with the random and unexpected stuff life presents.
And these habits are part of what makes us uniquely us. People know us by them, for good or bad. And, of course, brands get woven into our habits because they are part of our lives: The Starbucks espresso every morning; the Pret BLT every lunchtime; the Greggs doughnut when we’re feeling naughty. Brands recognise our habits from their sales data, too. They predict them, nurture them and ultimately thrive off them. What else is brand loyalty but habit, borne of repetition and preference?
That said, most of our habits have been shattered into a million pieces since March. And so the brands that relied on those habits have seen the very foundations of their business shift. The impact on mental health and on economic health has been devastating.
Where do brands fit in a dramatically altered landscape?
We’re now over seven months into this new reality. That’s long enough for us to have developed new routines which are beginning to feel comfortingly familiar. Indeed, a recent paper, "Habits Without Values," published in Psychological Review concludes that forming habits is a matter of simply repeating a behaviour until it sticks, no matter how little pleasure you derive from it.
You probably have new proxies for old favourites: a Peloton bike, say, taking the place of a visit to the gym; an Amazon Prime delivery of a Whole Foods dinner replacing a visit to a local restaurant on date night. Little things but, together, they add up to seismic change. What’s missing is a whole bunch of brands – Pret, Yo!, Starbucks, TFL – that used to make up the brand topography of our personal spaces.
The longer it goes on, the more comfortable we get with it, thanks to the in-built human trait of adapting to survive. According to a survey of global workers by Microsoft earlier this year, 71% of people expressed a desire to continue working from home, at least part time, after the pandemic is over. Other studies in the US and Europe have shown similar trends. We may miss some of our old ways but we’ve developed new habits that make the current context more bearable.
The question is: if we ever do go back to the way things were, will we - can we - pick up our old habits again? Have our new Covid habits become our installed operating system?
How new habits are formed
Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expert status in a discipline, first documented in his 2008 book Outliers, may not have been referring to climbing aboard a Peleton bike for a sweaty session every other day, yet the specific focus of attention, the physical act of doing it and the positive mental reward is a form of ritualistic performance akin to Bill Gates coding furiously away for 10,000 mind-numbing hours.
It’s this repetition that wears synaptic grooves in our brains that creates habits. And our new Covid-era habits have now clocked up over 5,000 hours and counting.
So is it the end of the road for all those brands who depended on our old habits?
There may be silver linings amid the dark clouds. Pret CEO Pano Christou, for instance, has said that the chain previously found it hard to try radical new things simply because the prevailing business model was so successful. He recognises that it’s now easier to try new ways to deliver the brand’s values such as selling its signature coffee beans on Amazon. Admittedly, there’s no skirting the sad fact that the chain has cut thousands of jobs while they retool to a new reality. Similarly, Starbucks has started a coffee subscription service to encourage customers back into stores or at least favour the brand when ordering delivery. Brands with existing loyalty and reward schemes seem well placed when it comes to converting latent customer preference into active loyalty.
It helps also that subscription services are a growing trend in a variety of sectors. In many ways, the pandemic has accelerated changes that were already underway, compressing five year evolutions into a much more abrupt timeline.
The role of marketing communications in the new world order
But perhaps there’s more that can be done for both the old and new brands in our repertoire. Marketing communications can – and should – play an important part in keeping a brand salient in the new world order. While some brands may need to fundamentally change their customer experience, others cannot; the physical experience being a pivotal component of the brand. Pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, sports, live music, travel and many more can only do so much.
Crafting inspiring and motivating communications to keep the emotional spark alive in consumers is a task for brands’ marketing teams and agencies. They need to do everything possible to keep those neural pathways firing so the habit of seeing the latest blockbuster, watching the match live or going to a favourite restaurant isn’t lost for good in the altered reality of 2020.
In a way, it’s a new type of marcomms: less brand-building and more brand-sustaining. The challenge now is to nurture and sustain that bond even when the brand may be physically absent or radically changed. It’s not an easy brief but it’s a worthy one. One that will surely inspire the best in our creatives, strategists and executional teams across the globe to produce the exceptional work that these exceptional times demand.