Sublime Behavior Marketing Knowledge Base
The Five Minute Habit Insight

The Usage Gap:

Addressing a Habit Imbalance in Shopper Behavior


By Kyle Morich

Cleaner Options - Green equals Clean, apparently

Spraying and scrubbing the shower tile is not a chore I relish, and—outside the grout changing color—nothing about the process is reinforcing. I don shabby clothes and smother my face with a dust mask to block out the alkaline fumes of the bleach. I repeatedly smack my knuckles into hard corners and I typically need to use the shower as soon as I’m done cleaning it. Nevertheless, I submit myself to this unpleasant exercise every month because I’m a responsible adult who cares about the cleanliness of his home—also, because my wife tells me to do it.

This past weekend, I was about halfway through my duty when I ran out of cleaner. We use bleach to get rid of mildew buildup, and there were no other bleach-based products in the house to substitute. Were this the bachelor version of myself from five years ago, I would have shrugged, doused the rest of the shower with hot water, and called it a day. But I suppressed my slacker instincts and committed myself to finishing the job. I threw out the bottle, put on respectable clothing, wrote “bleach spray” on our grocery list, and headed out to do the week’s shopping.

As I arrived at the cleaning products aisle in the store, I had the sudden realization that I couldn’t remember which brand of cleaner I was supposed to buy. My mind was briefly awash in the panic that only grocery store shelves can invoke: dozens of products, dozens of price points, dozens of features, all competing to induce me to purchase. I had a vague recollection of the color green being involved on the bottle, so I grabbed a bottle of Lysol “All Purpose Cleaner with Bleach,” thinking that was my brand of choice. Turns out, I was wrong. We actually use Clorox “Cleaner with Bleach,” a product that also has green on the bottle, with some lovely yellow accents. Just like that, I had become the very thing that marketers fear and detest… a disloyal customer.

I’ve stated many times in this space that the goal of marketing should be creating customer habits. Getting your customers to buy and use your product on autopilot is the key to long-term growth and profitability, and protects your brand from competitive incursions and other market disruptions. But there are two behaviors of interest—purchase and usage. Customer decision-making is receiving significant attention, but this is almost exclusively in the area of purchase. To create habitual behavior, marketing efforts must focus on building habits for both actions simultaneously.

Two years into owning a home, cleaning the shower each month has become a habit. I give the bottle of cleaner no conscious consideration; I just use it consistently and repeatedly every month. But purchasing the shower cleanser is not a habit; my trip down the cleaning products aisle was an entirely conscious experience, and you saw how well my conscious mind performed when I was trying to purchase the same brand I bought last time—I  inadvertently purchased a competing brand. There exists a habit imbalance in my relationship with this cleanser, and the gap between my usage habit and my purchase habit led to my “erroneous” shopping choice.

The Usage Gap in the consumer's path-to-purchase

The science behind this imbalance is clear, and there are two main factors at play. The first is context. All habits become associated with a context. The context, comprised of time of day, location, goals, and other situational factors, defines what options are available to you and which behavioral triggers will control your behavior. In my context of “home cleaning,” I have established a consistent routine: open the cabinet door, find the green bottle of cleaner (instead of the yellow or blue ones), and go about cleaning the shower. The color green is the only relevant information my brain needs in that context, and the logo or brand name never enter into the equation. In my context for “grocery shopping,” however, I do not have a consistent routine for buying cleaner, and so my conscious mind tried to apply whatever information was available. In this case, I could recall the green bottle from my usage context, but not enough to translate that to the purchase context.

The second factor, and primary culprit in our story, is repetition. Habits form through repetition. While the number of repetitions necessary to form a habit is dependent on many factors, each repetition etches the implicit memory deeper into the limbic region of the brain. In the two years of using Clorox “Cleaner with Bleach” to clean my shower, I had approximately 24 repetitions of use, but the trip to the store was only my first repetition of the purchase behavior since we moved in to our house. The repetitions necessary to form purchase cues and develop automatic repurchase behavior had not occurred.

24 Repetitions of Purchase with only 2 Repetitions of Use

Habit imbalances exist for any consumer product where the use of the product occurs far more frequently than the purchase or when purchase and usage are separated in time. Non-perishable goods, hygiene products, diapers, electronics, shoes, and clothing are just a few categories that face this issue. In path-to-purchase models, the “usage” step is just another box on the consumption loop. But the actual time and behavior occurring during the usage step could cover weeks, months, or even years (as with cars and major appliances). The challenge for marketers is to fill this usage gap.

The gap between usage and purchase repetitions is not a failing, but marketers must understand its existence if they are to bridge the two behaviors. Great advertising and branding can build awareness and induce a consumer to try a product. Great design and development ensures that product delivers a satisfactory experience and allows for habit formation in the context of use. But marketing often focuses on winning the first purchase and neglects to build a path to habitual repurchase.


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