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From the discomfort Zone: Ingenuity to transform habits

Behaviour change through product usage is not always easy.

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Published: July 20, 2014 1:11:02 am

Changing the behaviour of a product’s end-user does not happen by chance. Only an enterprise with special motivation can make it happen, as I wrote last week. Behavioural change is extremely physical. There’s got to be some bodily object that interacts with people for behaviour to change; no intangible theory can do this job at the mass level.

Shaving behaviour: The straight razor, where the blade folds into its handle, what roadside barber shops still use, was invented around 1680. In 1901, Gillette initiated the double-edged safety razor with replaceable blades. To modernise men’s shaving habit, Gillette invented the single-side razor. Introducing the “razor and blades business model” or inexpensive razor with disposable blades, Gillette’s business grew tremendously. The beauty here is the high-tech blade; it’s expensive, but gives a large number of shaves. The razor picks it up from its packaging socket, men don’t touch it. It’s so simple and safe that women are attracted to use it.

So year after year with single focus, Gillette follows every generation, social trend, state-of-the-art engineering with precision manufacturing to innovate and revolutionise the way the world shaves. The Fusion ProGlide with FlexBall Technology they’ve just announced has a maneuverable handle that moves, adjusts, pivots across a man’s facial contours to allow it to capture every hair. This is a grand example of Gillette’s drive for world leadership by constantly changing men’s practical behaviour.

Walkman, the incredible behaviour changer: History shows that Philips, the fundamental inventor of many products, could barely get registered in people’s minds as a behaviour changing agent. On the other hand, newcomer Sony — not a fundamental inventor — successfully did so with the Walkman in 1979. The behavioural change the Walkman established was phenomenal; people moved around with little earphones, hands-free, enjoying music with a personal device. Being able to transform habits often comes from single focused, creative entrepreneurial challenge. Sony masterminded entertainment devices with the Walkman. But then it diversified and ran into losses. The big behavioural change the Sony Walkman introduced has shifted to Apple. Sony lost focus on entertainment devices for the digi-tech generation when it derooted its creative ingenuity into too many directions.

Smartphone: Changing people’s habit and behaviour through the smart mobile phone, Apple dynamised the finger touch. Monopolistic Microsoft missed the boat with people shifting from the laptop to the mobile phone. Till a few years ago, I was comfortable with my Blackberry — the typewriter replica. The day my IT engineer changed my ‘dumb phone’ to a ‘smart phone’, I was lost. But just a few days of usage changed my habit. I could never imagine I’d write articles and books on the touch screen. Just look at how these industries have not only innovated, but contaminated people to change their product usage behaviour.

Fast food: ‘Eat slowly’ is our social nicety when hosting a meal for invited guests. Yet along with 118 countries worldwide, India has abandoned specific, food-related cultural nuances to embrace typical American fast food like McDonald’s. Europeans hated this “time is money” fast food concept, and resisted its entry. But when at midnight you don’t find any restaurant open in rural Europe, a McDonald’s welcomes you. In fact, McDonald’s has democratised society globally. A low economic strata family now dares to eat at the extremely expensive Champs Elysees street of Paris because McDonald’s, which is affordable, is there. Also tourists amidst alien ways and food habits make a beeline for the predictably familiar McDonald’s.

In places famous for gastronomy like France and Italy, McDonald’s tweaks its menu and décor to attract locals. In Milan’s 14th century Piazza del Duomo with Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — the world’s oldest and beautiful shopping mall — there’s luxury brand Prada on the left, Louis Vuitton on the right, Cartier, Gucci, Ferragamo; all within view, jostling for prominence. I was amused to see the bright yellow M twinkling at the edge, saying “I’m lovin’ it”, and attracting heavy traffic in total defiance of the dissonance traditionalists feel.

The only food connecting poor, rich, old and young across heterogeneous India is the jalebi, which is why my book is called Jalebi Management to represent everyone. India’s traditional food habit is different every 500 km, but McDonald’s — with the same vegetarian and non-vegetarian menu — is mesmerising all age groups across south, east, north and west India.

Never so easy: Behaviour change through product usage is not always easy. Take the e-cigarette that’s trying so hard to shift smokers. The response is minimal as e-cigarettes merely give flavoured vapour that simulates tobacco smoking. Actually the main question is, do cigarette companies really want their business model to change? Is the e-cigarette an eye-wash to fool the public and regulators that people’s health is not being damaged? As the e-cigarette is not addictive, it doesn’t work towards behavioural change. So will smokers and cigarette companies forget about changing behaviour and continue to injure health?

Enterprises need a different mindset to change the end user’s behaviour: It’s the ingenuity of the enterprise that drives behaviour creation. Before the digital age, human behaviour took time to change. Digi-tech now helps speed up innovation for industrial production to satisfy human needs. Corporate ideation for changing and sustaining the customer’s behaviour tomorrow will be very challenging because of fast changing digi-trends. An innovative but traditional mindset company can make profitable growth, but when it can command the mechanism of changing behaviour, it enters another league.

The substance of changing customer behaviour always requires a distinct spark. The product or service has to be extremely humane and uplift routine to ideal habit. Society’s drivers may start the change in a small way, but if it’s really scientific it quickly shapes up to addict the masses — who are the followers in society.
Shombit Sengupta is an international creative
business strategy consultant to top management.
Reach him at

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