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Marketing is ultimately about changing the behavior of a customer (e.g. a purchase decision). Related to this, creating new behavior patterns of employees is also essential for transforming a company culture and brand. With social media dominating our lives today, the behavior of company employees and external customers is intertwined, presenting new opportunities for strengthening company brands.

In a recent newsletter from a friend, Rich Czerniawski referred to the concept of “keystone habits,” which came from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Basically, keystone habits are “bedrock habits that cause other habits to flourish.” Duhigg states that “40% to 45% of what we do every day [that] sort of feels like a decision…is actually a habit.” This principle has important implications for building a performance-driven company culture and brand, as well as changing the behavior of consumers.

The potential of a keystone habit is that it can encourage other related behavior pattern changes that will combine to establish a more complete, productive performance. Czerniawski used exercise as an example. Once a person establishes a core, consistent exercise pattern, and it produces positive results (e.g. loss of weight, increased energy, satisfaction from achievement, etc.), it will trigger other healthy choices and behaviors such as more nutritional eating, procrastinating less, sleeping more soundly, and more attention to other hygienic habits. It builds like a chain reaction.

The culture of a company revolves around its values, established and demonstrated by its top leaders. The importance of clearly defining and showing off these values is more critical than ever, due to the rise of activism and the ability to easily attack corporate brands via social media, which is exacerbated by the general lack of credibility and trust people hold for business today. According to Duhigg, success is based not so much on strategic decisions, but on the habits and values within the organization.

Engaging and listening to customers is fundamental, especially by corporate leaders. Years ago, when David Neeleman founded and ran JetBlue, he would frequently join a flight to personalize the company’s customer focused values. Once the flight was airborne, he would stand up and thank everyone for flying JetBlue, then go down the aisle to ask passengers how JetBlue could improve its service. This not only made a huge impact on its customers, which was often shared online, but also made an indelible impression on the JetBlue employees. This “minor” keystone habit by Neeleman galvanized and encouraged all employees to create and practice more initiatives to enhance the JetBlue image of a customer-driven brand. In short, these small acts helped create a more credible and widespread performance-driven culture for JetBlue.

In addition to these employer-branding efforts, the principle behind keystone habits is relevant for customer service and marketing practices. Habits form neurologically in the unconscious part of the brain, starting in the prefrontal cortex, and when behavior becomes a habit and automatic, it moves into the unconscious basal ganglia part of the brain. The end result is a feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment, an important emotion that Duhigg says is the reward from a new habit.

Neuroscientists have proven that emotion is the main cause of behavior, and the perception of brand values is emotion-driven. In his recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains that human behavior is driven more by emotion and intuition than rationality. Neuroscientist John Caine‘s findings that “the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions” supports this.

While values trigger emotional feelings by definition, and these are essential for developing a trustful relationship between a brand and its customers, the big challenge today in our dynamic digital world is to demonstrate actions that will make people believe in these values. This is why/how these keystone habits can become so powerful for convincing customers (and employees) that your value promises are indeed being delivered in a way that will overcome these feelings of distrust and cynicism.

Successful branding will be accomplished when executives realize that changing behavior and creating a performance-driven culture will best be achieved if both employer-branding initiatives and consumer marketing are coordinated. The benefits must be clearly demonstrated with visible action to cultivate a stronger culture and reinforce its core brand values.


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About Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is President, founder of The Pathfinder Group, a business development firm specializing in emotional branding, ideation facilitation and international expansion. His background has focused mainly on marketing and new product development with executive positions at reputable companies in the US and abroad – Richardson Vicks/P&G, Church & Dwight, Seagram and Newsweek. Jay has also been teaching a branding course at NYU since 1999 and recently wrote a book on the “Basics of Branding”, published by Business Expert Press. Jay has a BA from Colby College and MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth.

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