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Creating health behaviour change by disrupting habits

24/11/16 07:30
COUCH Medcomms



Habits influence much of our behaviour, from the route we take to work each day to the brand of cereal we eat for breakfast. We base present or future actions on what has happened in the past. But habits are life transforming, for either good or bad, and a willingness to change them is what drives health behaviour change

Confirming established patterns of behaviour

Focusing on benefits is an accepted healthcare marketing strategy. Patients may not care whether their pills are yellow or pink (although many commonly refer to colour to help with identification), but they do care about how effective the medication is, and how much better it makes them feel.

Research by the Ehrenburg-Bass Institute revealed that the pattern of sales across various products and brands was much the same regardless of positioning. This begs the question: if the pattern of sales within each sector is the same, is it worth brands working so hard on positioning?

The results suggest the marketing message has little influence over patient’s willingness to change. The biggest influence is the individual’s personal behavioural habits.

Recognising and disrupting keystone habits

In order to effect health behaviour change, and in doing so capture a larger share of the market, pharma needs to find a way to disrupt habitual behaviour. If customers or patients can be convinced of the need to alter their habits, they’re more likely to be willing to make the switch and, in doing so, form a new habit that includes a new brand.

What are keystone habits? The phrase, coined by Charles Duhigg (New York Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of The Power of Habit, says they are habits that influence or affect other areas of life, and often lead to the formation of other good habits. Such as:

  • Sleeping well: often correlates with healthy eating.
  • Exercising: lowers stress levels and increases productivity at work.
  • Journaling: to keep track of diet or pain levels, triggers and relievers.
  • Routine: such as going to bed and rising at the same times, which helps give structure to the day, mentally signalling the start of other activities.
  • Morning planning: helps focus the mind on the tasks ahead.

Identifying the keystone habits that keep patients loyal to one brand can influence pharma’s marketing strategies. So, instead of constantly changing the message that’s inherent in marketing communications, what needs to change is the attempt to disrupt established habits.

Basing advertising or promotions on what features consumers say are important to them won’t necessarily change the way they behave. Their habits will lead them along already established behavioural paths.

Habit drives behaviour

Purchasing decisions are based on past experiences as much as current needs. Rather than relying on the features consumers say are important, and making marketing decisions solely around those features, pharma needs to monitor and understand the underlying habits that drive patient behaviour. Then, find a way to disrupt that habit and thereby pave the way for new choices. 

One potential way of disrupting a habit is to offer a simplified way to use a product. By getting this type of edge over competitors, pharma could not only redirect the habits of more of their target consumers, but also create brand loyalty with more staying power.

Influencing habitual actions is a more effective way of bringing about health behaviour change than relying on positioning or extolling the benefits and features of a drug or therapy.


Behaviour Change


Topics: Adherence, Behaviour Change

COUCH Medcomms

At the risk of sounding too pretentious, at COUCH we consider ourselves storytellers first and foremost. And we are passionate in championing this approach to medical communications.

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