New year, new brands – it’s a real phenomenon

Research has found that customers are more open to trying something new soon after a landmark event, opening up an opportunity for brands to get them to switch.

new year resolutionsAre you still in the grips of a New Year-related burst of motivation? According to research, six out of 10 people make plans to live a better life, one way or another, starting on 1 January.

It’s natural to feel like drawing a line under the over-indulgence of the festive period or the questionable decisions you made last year and aspire to a superior self. New Year is a well-known moment for the adoption of new behaviours – a fact that is of course exploited by marketers. But it’s not the only one.

Researchers Hengchen Dai and Katherine Milkman at The Wharton School, and Jason Riis at Harvard Business School set out to uncover whether the ‘New Year effect’ works with other timescales too. Might it be just one example of a broader phenomenon?

They explored other naturally arising starting points to find out whether individuals are more motivated towards behaviours that help them achieve personal goals.

In a study of 11,912 students, they found that the probability of visiting the gym increases at the beginning of the week (by 33%), month (by 14%), term (by 47%) and year (by 12%). They also found that birthdays increase gym attendance by 7.5%.

This suggests that personal landmarks, as well as calendar landmarks, can produce what they termed the ‘fresh start effect’.

The fresh start effect is a fantastic opportunity for any marketer attempting to attract new customers.

The researchers hypothesised that temporal landmarks separate people from their imperfect past selves. Wiping the slate clean generates fresh start feelings and motivates people.

And it’s not just new time periods that destabilise habits. Any significant change in circumstances seems to have a similar effect. Moving to a new city, having a baby, switching jobs – all offer an opportunity to rethink and improve upon habitual decisions.

The fresh start effect is a fantastic opportunity for any marketer attempting to attract new customers.

But you don’t need to trust in an academic study. One of the best things about behavioural science is that you can run your own experiments to test a hypothesis. You just need people.

One of us surveyed 2,370 nationally representative people in order to quantify how much undergoing a life event affected behaviour (this means things like beginning a job, starting university, having a baby or getting married).

There were two questions. First, which life events had they undergone recently? Second, had they changed brands, within 10 specified categories? The categories were diverse: make-up, coffee shops, lager, broadband, mobiles and even opticians.

The two sets of answers were then cross-referenced − more reliable than asking directly. The results were conclusive.

Within every category, consumers were more likely to switch brands when they had recently undergone any significant life event. Overall, 21% of life-changers were likely to have switched brands, compared with just 8% of business-as-usual consumers.

These insights aren’t just academic. One of us worked with energy drink Carabao to target these moments of destabilisation to win over new users.

Carabao used Facebook, Mumsnet, YouTube and mobile tracking to identify people going through life events that might demand an energy boost, such as switching jobs, a new baby (dads only, to avoid advertising energy drinks to breastfeeding mums) or embarking on marathon training.

The campaign was highly successful: brand awareness grew from 0% to 21% – 10 percentage points more than the Kantar prediction for Carabao’s budget level.

So, target customers soon after a landmark event and they’ll be more open to trying something new.

And if you’ve already fallen off your new healthy habit wagon, don’t worry – you can always start afresh on Monday.

Richard Shotton is founder of the consultancy Astroten and author of The Choice Factory, a book about applying behavioural science to advertising. He tweets at @rshotton.

Will Hanmer-Lloyd is head of behavioural planning at Total Media.

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