Marketing and the Sprained Ankle

Sprained left ankle. Photo by Faster Panda Kill Kill.

A while back, I sprained my left ankle-

-again. Due in part to simple human error and in part to my predilection for racquet sports that involve jerking around from side to side, this is perhaps the fourth time this fate has befallen me this year. But why only my left ankle? After the first sprain, it got weaker–it “learned” how to get sprained. It became an unfortunate habit.

In 2008, a New York Times magazine had a fascinating article about children who are diagnosed as bipolar. The piece notes:

Simply having seizures — even artificially generated ones — seems to alter the brain in such a way that it develops an organic seizure disorder. Some scientists say that a kindling process may happen with mania, too — that simply experiencing a manic episode could make it more likely that a particular brain will continue to do so. They say this explains why, once a person has had a manic episode, there is a 90 percent chance that he will have another.

In short, your body can get in the habit of having a manic episode or a seizure, just as mine has apparently decided that sprained ankles are the thing to do. If we can develop habits for physical processes that we barely understand, of course we can develop habits for more conscious activities. That same year, the Times had a great social marketing article called “Warning: Habits May Be Good for You.” It featured a British public health specialist trying to get people in Ghana to wash their hands with soap–an easy way to alleviate a variety of communicable diseases that were ravaging the nation. She turned to private sector marketers like Procter & Gamble for assistance in crafting a strategy, and was ultimately successful. The article reveals this little gem:

Academics were also beginning to focus on habit formation. Researchers like Wendy Wood at Duke University and Brian Wansink at Cornell were examining how often smokers quit while vacationing and how much people eat when their plates are deceptively large or small. Those and other studies revealed that as much as 45 percent of what we do every day is habitual — that is, performed almost without thinking in the same location or at the same time each day, usually because of subtle cues.

The challenge for us as marketers? How to create products so valuable and integral to the lives of our customers that they become habits–something so trusted you don’t even have to think about it. (We’re obviously leaving aside the unethical routes to habit formation, like the early 20th century cocaine-in-sodas trick.) How can we make our product and services indispensible?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.