Atomic Habits – book review

The science behind habits and how we can better understand our consumers and ourselves

The business world sometimes has a habit of making simple things really complicated, so it’s refreshing when someone comes along and does the reverse. The aptly named James Clear has just published ‘Atomic Habits’ a very practical & accessible book which explains the emerging science behind why and how we form habits.

Presented primarily as a self-improvement text, Atomic Habits explains how real change – in career, relationships & life – comes from the compound effect of hundreds of small changes. In itself, this isn’t a new concept. If you’re a cycling fan, you might be familiar with British Cycling coach, Dave Brailsford’s, 1% approach to marginal gains – where many tiny changes have had a seismic impact on the team’s performance.
Atomic Habits is undoubtedly a useful book on many levels, but I think for marketers it has an additional use – it helps us to better understand our consumers’ behaviour.
Byron Sharp’s ‘How Brands Grow’ is based on the, relatively recent, understanding that many purchasing decisions are made sub-consciously using System 1 thinking (the fast, intuitive reactions and instantaneous decisions that govern most of our lives).
The role of habits is to reduce the effort and time taken to make decisions. Habits underpin System 1 thinking, so understanding how habits are triggered & reinforced is critical for marketers whose products are often chosen on autopilot.
Clear uses the ‘habit loop’ to explain four distinct, but rapid, stages of habit forming: cue, craving, response & reward. These act like a feedback loop, where triggers prompt an action, each action has an expected payoff and – if that’s successfully delivered, the action is rewarded, so in future it’s repeated and becomes automatic.
The ‘habit loop’ featured in Atomic Habits – people have to move through four distinct – but rapid – stages in order for habits to form
Based on the ‘habit loop’, the author proposes 4 laws that encourage habit formation. Incidentally, the laws can also be reversed to discourage bad habits. Here’s a summary with some practical examples of how they’re used by brands:
____________
Make it obvious.
The role of context is often underestimated by marketers, whereas the importance of motivation and self-control are overestimated. Time and place are often the big triggers for behaviour.
Marketing application: The shelf and in-store location of products hugely influence sales. Putting POS on a pub bar or in a high footfall aisle places triggers right in front of consumers. Dramatising usage occasions in advertising creates an association between an existing behaviour and the need for your product.
Maltesers advertising always features the bitesize chocolates at the centre of light-hearted sharing situations, reinforcing the link between the brand and occasion.
____________
Make it attractive. 
We’re prewired to lust after certain things – in food, it’s ingredients like sugar, fat and salt because humans have historically existed in an environment of food scarcity and are genetically programmed to store calories for survival. Other inherent drivers exist – like craving social acceptance by displaying the behaviour that’s valued by our culture. That’s because collaboration between humans has also been an evolutionary basis for survival.
Marketing application: Consumers often imitate the habits of three social groups – the close (like our family), the many (the tribe we identify with) and the powerful (such as famous people). These are leveraged in marketing communications, for example through recommendation (the close), advertising images showing popularity (the tribe) and celebrity endorsement (the powerful).
Insurgent gym wear brand Gymshark became successful by designing body builder vests that fitted a tribe of slim gym-loving teenagers, who hadn’t yet built muscle bulk.

____________
Make it easy.

Clear talks about the ‘law of least effort’ which suggests that we naturally seek to conserve energy and choose the easiest route. He refers to this a ‘reducing friction’. This is an incredibly helpful tactic for marketers because the more automatic (less effort) a choice, the more likely it will become habitual.
Application for marketers: the exponential increase in subscription-based direct-to-consumer services is evidence of the ‘law of least effort’. For firms, automatic subscriptions are the holy grail for producing recurring revenues, because for consumers stopping a subscription often requires more effort that sticking with it.
Why walk to the boozer when alcohol comes to you? Tipplebox is in the Top 10 postal subscription services according to research by courier firm Whistl

____________
Make it satisfying.

The human brain prioritises immediate needs over delayed gratification. As Clear puts it, what is immediately rewarded gets repeated. The first time you eat chocolate you’ll likely get a dopamine hit – a reward – that will encourage you to eat chocolate again. The next time you go to eat chocolate, the evidence is that the dopamine hit will come earlier – during the craving stage, when you’re merely anticipating the experience. Reminding consumers what they’ll get is why building appetite appeal into food advertising and packaging is so important.
Application for marketers: food and drink manufacturers invest in ensuring that the sensorial experience delivers rewards that will get people buying again. The food technologist has a range of tools available to create satisfaction – how the product looks, its texture & mouthfeel, the aroma, satisfying sounds, flavour combinations and so on.
Freeze dried coffee has no smell, so aroma is injected into the jar to amplify the sensory ‘reward’ when a buyer breaks the seal.

Atomic Habits comes highly recommended. Regardless of whether you view as a self-improvement book, a window on consumer behaviour, or indeed both; I think you’ll find this book easy to read and stimulating.

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