The Power of Habit to define what we buy

The neurology of selling us more — and making us crave products we didn’t even know we wanted.

This is an excerpt from Hiatus, the free current events briefing with no links, no likes and no distractions.

Why do you brush your teeth every day? It’s good for you, sure, but there are lots of activities that could make you even healthier that you routinely avoid. The true reason is that you believe it makes your mouth feel fresh — and one skilled salesman nearly 100 years ago trained us all to feel that way.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a fantastic book for self-improvement — it crisply and vividly explains how our brains work to form, follow and change our built-in habits and routines. You could pick out just the tactics for habit change and get huge value from the book. My favorite parts, though, are the stories about how companies use our habit-forming brains not just to sell us more, but to make us crave products we didn’t even know we wanted.

Until the early 20th century, nobody brushed their teeth. The first commercially successful American toothpaste, Pepsodent, broke into the market in the 1920s by changing the focus of its sales pitch from health to habit. While other products pitched healthy teeth, Pepsodent hit on the magic of the habit loop — your brain picks up a cue, performs a routine, and gets a reward. Here’s one of the ads from the resulting campaign:

The cue — that little thing that makes you brush your teeth every day — is the “film” you feel after about 12 hours of daily life. The routine, of course, is cracking open some toothpaste and going to town. The reward is that fresh, minty feeling — and Pepsodent was the first product to hammer this cycle home in its ads. It was a tremendous financial success, and it had a staggering effect on our daily lives, introducing a totally new routine that every single one of us does multiple times a day.

The book tells a similar tale of the creation of Febreze, a product with lots of unique chemistry behind it that was almost a total failure. Febreze is actually a new invention — it is not just an air freshener, but a new compound that captures and eliminates bad smells at the chemical level. You can sit down in a lab and quantify the fact that it works. But in its first trial runs, nobody wanted it.

First, people whose homes smelled horrible were so desensitized they didn’t notice it, and thus didn’t buy air fresheners. Second, the result of Febreze in a relatively non-stinky home was that nothing happened. There’s no smell. That’s great, but people ended up forgetting about it after a few tries. When the marketing team visited homes of some customers, though, they noticed an interesting trend:

“I use it for normal cleaning — a couple of sprays when I’m done in a room. It’s a nice way to make everything smell good as a final touch.”

The original version of Febreze had no scent. The company added a fresh scent, even though it’s not part of the chemical smell-removal process, to create a new craving and habit. Now you see commercials where somebody finishes making the bed, pats the comforter proudly, and sprays a few shots of Febreze happily into the air. In the new habit loop, the cue is a dirty room, the routine is the hard work of cleaning up, and the reward is a quick spritz of delightfully scented Febreze.

From the book: The Febreze Habit Loop

Using the same understanding of the neurology of habits, Target can determine when a woman is pregnant, even if she hasn’t told anyone yet.

Pregnant women and new parents are incredibly valuable customers for retailers. First, a big life change means an opportunity to build new habits and patterns, which can include switching to new brands and stores. The second reason:

“People with infants are so tired that they’ll buy everything they need — juice and toilet paper, socks and magazines — wherever they purchase their bottles and formula.”

To capture this exhausted, time-starved, price-insensitive market, Target initiated a big-data project to figure out which buying habits women developed in each trimester of pregnancy. Based on purchases of 25 key products, they could yield a “pregnancy prediction” score, which not only included a percentage-based likelihood of pregnancy, but also ballparked the due date.

There’s just one problem: when you start sending ads for cribs to women who are 11 weeks pregnant, things get creepy fast. In fact, the book includes a story of a man who went to his local Target to complain about an ad his teenage daughter had received hawking cribs and diapers. A few days later, he apologized — it turned out his daughter was pregnant after all.

Target shifted to a more a balanced approach, subtly sprinkling the baby ads into a more generic mailer, and sales skyrocketed. Building and tracking habits is a big win for retailers — as long as they don’t make it too obvious they know all our secrets.


Rob Howard is the author of Hiatus, a free, weekly current events briefing with no links, no likes and no distractions. In five minutes a week, you get the knowledge you need to be an informed, responsible citizen.