A sick person goes to a doctor or to a pharmacy, gets some medication, and takes it until she feels better. Consumer behaviour in most routine medical contexts is quite straightforward. A symptom, usually easily recognisable, triggers the decision to seek professional advice. The therapy, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, is taken for a well-defined period of time—either until one feels better, or for the course of the treatment, which is normally a few days.
The world of functional nutrition, nutraceuticals and nutritional supplements—indeed, of “lifestyle drugs" in general—is very different. First of all, for many of these, there is no readily recognisable symptom. You don’t have a fever or inflammation that makes you go see the doctor. Correspondingly, there is usually no visible evidence that you are getting better. And third, the duration of usage is usually much longer. You need to keep taking the supplement, possibly lifelong, to maintain your health.
Because of these differences, marketers of such products face a unique set of problems. Recruiting customers is important, of course, but retention is absolutely critical. Recruitment is relatively easy—traditional advertising and promotional tactics have lots to say about it. Retention, in such contexts, is the domain of the emerging science of behavioural economics. The key problem is, how do you create a habit? Drawing from recent research, here are five key ways to making behaviour change stick.
Simplicity. First and foremost, you have to make the desired behaviour simple. If you would like your customer to take pills daily, provide her with a weekly pillbox. If she needs to take three drops of your liquid, don’t give her a dropper that holds as many as ten drops or as few as one.
Triggers. At the same time, give the customer salient opportunities to remember your product. A calendar to stick on the fridge, where she can cross each day off, is a great memory cue. A toothbrush holder with a reminder helps her integrate her dosage with another routine daily activity.
Incentives. People’s motivations change over time. They usually start taking your supplement with the very best of intentions, but lose interest along the way. The incentive to start taking any medication, usually a “feeling unwell" trigger of some sort, gets replaced by “I’m better now" or “there’s nothing wrong with me; this is the new normal." Consequently, messages that would be most efficacious in preventing people from lapsing are very different from those that may have induced them to start taking the supplement.
Community. People are social animals. The best way to encourage a desired behaviour is to make it public. From step-tracking to electricity usage reduction, people who know that their performance is visible to others keep trying harder, longer and more effectively. Support groups are awesome.
Keep at it. Just like you want your customers to. Give them feedback. Send regular reminders. Keep prompting. Develop an app where they can engage with your brand and share with their (your!) community.
Developing habits is hard. From a consumer’s point of view, the way to think about it is not, “I am doing this because I need to," but rather, “I am doing this because it is part of who I am." From the marketer’s standpoint, the best way to help the consumer along this process is to identify and remove all possible obstacles, hurdles and temptations—and then get out of the way.
Editor’s Note: Anirban Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D., is speaking in the Vitafoods Asia Centre Stage on consumer psychology in food marketing. He is also chairing the focus on “Bringing your Product to the Asian Market."
Anirban Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D., is professor of marketing and associate director of the Ph.D./M.Phil. programmes at the school of business and management, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. His research focuses on the interplay between consumers’ beliefs, emotions and self-regulatory behaviour, and has been published in leading academic journals in the fields of marketing, psychology and corporate strategy. Mukhopadhyay is an associate editor of the Journal of Marketing Research, past area editor at the Journal of Consumer Psychology, and serves on the editorial boards of several other journals. He holds a doctoral degree in marketing from Columbia University and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management.