This is a 4 blog series on the role of consumer habits post lockdown.

In the first in the series, our planning Director, Steve Brunt explains what habits are and the role they play in our everyday behaviour and routine. He also explores how to disrupt consumer habits and routines, and the impact of the lock down on our habits.


What is a habit?

And habit is a special instance of behaviour – a repetitive, nearly automatic behaviour.

Most of the time we do what we do most of the time.

What happens is that a cue becomes associated with an action, and the action with the reward.

The reward then becomes latent motivation that the cue then retriggers. The conscious mind stops getting involved.

If this, then that.

Habit is the brain concluding that the problem has been solved, and doesn’t need solving again every time.

Repeated behaviour

Habits are the brain’s autopilot.

If this, then that.

The more they are repeated, the stronger the rut they form. It’s incredibly helpful for driving, and incredibly unhelpful for stopping smoking.

Most behaviour is habitual

90% of what we do is habit driven. 40% of every day is everyday.

Especially low investment, low risk, frequent behaviour.


Our hourly, daily, weekly and monthly lives are lived by habits.

The more essential to our lives, the more habitual our behaviour becomes.

Eating, drinking, sleeping, relaxing, working, cleaning, personal care, travelling, socialising, watching, scrolling.

Cycles of habit.

Brands and habits

Sometimes habits are mistaken for brand loyalty. People don’t buy brands, they buy categories, and they usually don’t even have to think about it.

Brand owners get a nasty shock when they see how breezily they’re substituted for their fiercest competitor when their shelf facing is empty!

But adapting once to a disruption in habit isn’t the same as switching it off.

Repeated disappointment at the shelf wakes the conscious mind; and a strong enough preference can change the whole shopping behaviour.

Disruption makes and break habits

Disruption is the best time to make or break a habit – when we change jobs, move house, break up with a partner, get married, even just start a New Year. It’s a clean slate.

This doesn’t have to be deliberate or directly related. We’re more likely to change shampoo when we get a new job. We’re just more open to change during change.

What happens when a habit is interrupted?

The cycle is broken.

The cue still exists but can’t be acted upon.

The motivation/reward still exists but can’t be accessed.

An interrupted habit forces the conscious mind to wake up and consider actions we normally autopilot our way through.

Four adaptive strategies when deprived of a habitual behaviour

Habits are powerful, and they can drive us to adapt in different ways.

Go cold turkey.

Switch –  accept a direct substitute (“it’s pepsi, is that ok?”)

Work around – find another way to get what you want

Replace – satisfy the need with a different response


Lockdown has blown our routines apart

Our everyday habits aren’t available to us in this lockdown. Almost everything regular and patterned about our lives has been turned on its head.

If you’ve never lived through a war, this is the biggest disruption of consumer behaviour most of us will ever know.

At first it was a chance to reset our defaults, to clear the cache of all our unconscious, automatic behaviours, and consider the choices we normally autopilot through.

What’s changed?

Our everyday routines have disappeared. School run, commute, lunchtime, home-time, tea-time, bed-time. That’s the infrastructure we build our consumption habits around.

  • Our normal sellers have disappeared. The shops/pubs/gyms are shut.
  • Our usual channels are restricted. Even a move from in-store to online can mean 2 in 5 customers switch brands.
  • Our normal products aren’t available. The supply lines are down, the shelves are empty.
  • Our usual cues are gone. The promotions are off, the priorities are different, the pre-planning is stronger.
  • The motivations and rewards are different. We’re thinking more about our own security and the needs of others.

Consumers’ ‘adaptive strategies’ are in action now

Not all categories are affected equally, and not all customers are responding the same.

  • Cold turkey – do nothing: Greggs, Primark
  • Switch – accept a direct substitute: Warburton’s – Kingsmill
  • Work around – find another way to get what you want:  Tesco – Milk&more
  • Replace – satisfy the need another way: Restaurants – home cooked meals

Next blog…

In the second blog in this series on the role of consumer habits post lockdown, we’ll explore how our cues, means and motivations have changed as a result of the lockdown and what the new normal might look like.

Steve Brunt Planning Director

By Steve Brunt

Planning Director