How the Psychology of Habits Can Influence Consumer Product Marketing

How the Psychology of HabitSo much of what sells a consumer product is intangible. Quality matters: does the product do what it’s supposed to do? But so do things like the emotions the product evokes in the user (does it smell like a favorite memory?), the associations a person has with the product (this is what my mother used), and whether or not the product is part of the person’s habits.

Habits are automatic behavior patterns that can occur without conscious decision-making on the part of the actor. Habits consist of three parts: A cue, a routine, and a reward (Duhigg, 2012). Once someone has experienced this cycle, the habit is created as the person begins to crave the reward (Berrdige & Kingelbach, 2008). Although people may engage in a behavior for the first time for a specific reason such as a financial incentive, they will continue the behavior long term if the routine reliably elicits a valued reward (Finlay, Trafimow, & Villarreal, 2002). So where do consumer products come in?

Consumer products can play multiple roles in the habit cycle. They can serve as cues, or reminders, to engage in a routine. They can be a part of the routine. And, they can offer a reward as a result of the routine. To the extent that a consumer product is part of a habit, we can expect to see regular usage and brand loyalty.

Cue: Consumer products may serve as the cue for a particular routine. For example:

  • If someone is suffering from a cold, the relief they experience after taking an over-the-counter medication to address symptoms may cue a bedtime routine.
  • The scent of a favorite lotion might cue a relaxation routine.

Routine: Consumer products often serve as part of a routine. For example:

  • A face cleanser might be an integral part of a morning getting-ready routine.
  • Shampoos or lotions are often a key part of the ritual when a parent bathes a child.

Reward: Consumer products offer users rewards in terms of the outcome of product use. For example:

  • A toothpaste user is rewarded with a tingling mouth that feels clean.
  • Someone using a moisturizer is rewarded with skin that feels hydrated and looks fresh.
  • A scented product may offer the reward in terms of the pleasing aroma evident after use.
The habit cycle as depicted by Charles Duhigg

We can work to integrate consumer products into our users’ existing habits and routines in several ways. According to Duhigg (2012), changing habits (or forming new ones) takes four steps:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

Understanding users’ existing routines is the first step to marketing products in a way that hooks them into routines. Consumer research like ethnography is vital for this.

How have you been able to harness user habits to make a product more effective? How?


Berridge, K. C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2008). Affective neuroscience of pleasure: Reward in humans and animals. Psychopharmacology, 199, 457-480.

Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Finlay, K. A., Trafimow, D., & Villarreal, A. (2002). Predicting exercise and health behavioral intentions: Attitudes, subjective norms, and other behavioral determinants. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32, 342-356.