How to Influence Customer Behavior by Making Your Ideas Stick

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by Ken Ribotsk

Change is tough. That’s why most people resist it at all costs. So, how do you get people to change an ingrained behavior, such as switching from a competitor’s product to yours?

Changing behavior starts by impressing an idea on someone’s mind. But the first step of that process is making that idea “stick”—and that’s where the Heath brothers come in.

In The New York Times bestseller Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Dan and Chip Heath break down how ideas become “sticky”—why they stay in people’s minds and develop a life of their own.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized “stickiness” as a concept in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, and it’s stuck ever since. But in a new twist, the Heath brothers have taken that concept and created a checklist of actions to help readers define and refine their ideas so they’re more likely to stick with colleagues and consumers.

So, how do you begin to apply these steps to your marketing strategy? It’s simple: Focus, and start small.

1. Start small, and communicate clearly

When you’re encouraging a customer to switch brands—whether it’s his laundry detergent or SUV—you’re asking for the same thing: change. And according to human nature, the best change is closest to no change at all.

That’s why the Heath brothers advocate pushing for small changes over time rather than going after one drastic change. Why? Because it’s easier to ask someone to act similar to how he’s acting now than it is to ask him to act wildly different.

So create a path that’s simple to follow, and communicate clearly. After all, how can people alter their behavior when they’re not sure why they need to in the first place?

Consider the automotive industry’s introduction of hybrids and electric cars. People living in cold climates were hesitant to buy fuel-cell hybrids because they worried that intense winter storms would negatively affect hybrids’ fuel efficiency. That’s when Toyota communicated to educate consumers.

Toyota reached out to customers who lived in areas prone to harsh winters and asked them about their hybrids’ performance. After demonstrating value, Toyota engaged in a pure education effort. The company explained that unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, fuel-cell vehicles perform well in freezing temperatures. It also debuted a set of winter tires and, to further capitalize on the conversation, created a funny campaign about a high-end hotel for summer tires. 

Before Toyota could change consumers’ behavior, it had to prove its value by educating them on the benefits of fuel-cell technology. Toyota had to communicate why fuel-cell technology is dependable, easy to use, and better for the environment and the consumer.

To pave the way for greater behavioral change, marketers must prove the value of innovation and show consumers why it’s useful to them.

2. Change one thing at a time

The next step is to focus on changing one behavior at a time—to “shrink the change,” as the Hearth brothers write.

For example, Google wanted its employees to eat healthier food. After conducting research, it noticed that people chose foods located in the front of the cafeteria. Google moved the salad bar so that it would be the first thing people encountered when they walked into the room.

Google watched people, developed a strategy, and nudged them toward the behavior it desired by making change easy for employees.

The Heaths also write about the importance of “shaping the path.” Tesla has done an excellent job of designing and building an effective, high-end electric car. But it’s been slower at building charging stations, which means it’s not convenient to charge a Tesla. That makes the path to ownership unnatural. After all, Tesla can’t change its consumers’ wants and needs—they want and need to charge their cars.

And as the Heath brothers say, for a change to be implemented successfully (to change behavior), a business must change the situation—in this case, the existence, or lack, of charging stations.

3. Connect with consumers

Part of what made Steve Jobs so remarkable was his ability to work backward. While other companies focused on industry competition, Apple began its product design with the customer experience. That’s what works—putting your consumers’ education, needs, and emotions first.

One company in particular has done that right: Starbucks. It’s changed the way people drink coffee by creating a customer experience in their stores that makes them feel good. According to the Heath brothers, that plays perfectly into Starbucks’ sequence of change: It’s not “analyze-think-change”; it’s “see-feel-change” in their surroundings. If you tug at your customers’ emotions, their minds will soon follow.

Don’t just create a campaign that tells consumers why they need your product; connect on a level that resonates with them with anecdotes, metaphors, testimonies, and pictures.

Need some inspiration? Just look at Truth’s anti-smoking campaigns. Everyone who smokes already knows it’s unhealthy. But showing smokers an emotional reality brings new urgency.