I don't pay much attention to the myriad fast-food product introductions and announcements that sweep our fair nation. I appreciate the push for innovation--the lifeblood of any business--but I'm just not their audience.

This week's announcement from Burger King admittedly caught my eye.

The burger boss is offering a $5-per-month coffee subscription. A cup a day, every day, all month long, $5. The last latte I bought at Starbucks cost $5.

The business goal is as old as time: Get 'em in your door, not theirs, with a crushing value and then they'll buy other things while there. It means lots of traffic you wouldn't have otherwise had.

It's not a move without risk. Coffee makes a lot of profit for franchisees, profit now drained, and that'll have to be perked up (I can't resist the puns) by other menu item purchases.

Burger King also must grow the category of fast-food breakfast and fight the ferocious competition within it. Research cited by The Washington Post shows only 6 percent of fast-foodies primarily frequent such restaurants for breakfast, while 42 percent do so primarily for lunch.

Not to mention, I don't know anyone who can't wait to get their next fix of Burger King coffee. And as for the competition? How'd you like to go up against McDonald's ever-expanding breakfast menu, the Starbucks ritual, or the growing delight of Dunkin'?

Underneath it all, though, it's important to understand the real reason why Burger King is taking this risk. Jonathan Maze, executive editor of Restaurant Business Magazine, pinpointed the "why" in an interview with the PostBreakfast habits are hard to break. And people aren't in the habit of going to Burger King for breakfast.

Having spent 24 years as a marketer for a pretty big marketing company (Procter & Gamble), I can unequivocally tell you that nothing is harder than changing a consumer's habit. Neanderthals sweep floors--stop that and start using this strange thing called Swiffer! Don't like drinking eight ounces of goop in the morning? But Metamucil is so healthy for you!

If you're in a business that sells or services anything, you're trying to create new habits--even if it's just the habit of "buy us, not them." Autopilot is your best friend if they're locked on your brand, a mortal enemy if not.

It's the toughest problem in business. Burger King's promotion is the latest attempt to tackle it. Inevitably, you will too--so here are the three biggest things you'll need to consider about the brutal business of changing habits:

1. Name the habit you're trying to change, and don't underestimate the degree of difficulty.

Naming the habit forces specificity of who you want to source volume from and helps crystalize how big a challenge it is. I want them to stop buying brand x and buy our brand instead (hard). Or, I want them to stop buying soda-pop in the store and start making it at home with our machine (even harder).

Once you determine the habit you're trying to change and the degree of difficulty involved, it should shape everything.

Habits are called habits because they're hard to break. Do you know your consumer and how your product will fit into their lives enough to pull it off? Why will your product make their lives so much better that they'd go through the work of forming a new habit? If it's an ingrained, tough habit to break, business as usual simply won't work.

2. Shake their complacency.

If you're trying to break an ingrained habit, is the reason to switch compelling enough? Have you created an issue with the status quo?

Example: People were just fine with sweeping their floors. But then the fine folks at Swiffer showed them that, actually, sweeping leaves an insane amount of dirt behind (witness the white socks turned black on the bottom after a walk across the swept floor), and voilà-- a billion-dollar category was born. 

People didn't start quitting smoking until it was patently clear it would kill them. New habits begin to form when it's clear why the status quo isn't working. It's your job to plant those seeds.

3. Be bold or very patient. Probably both.

Big, bold promotions like $5 for a month of coffee could certainly jump-start things. So start by thinking big.

If you're not willing or not in a position to make really bold moves, know that habit change takes time. Here's the pecking order: potential customer realizes (with your help) status quo isn't good enough, they become aware of your new thing then try it, multiple times, they see the benefit, habit starts to form. It's not an overnight thing.

We'll see if Burger King changes habits. Meanwhile, get in the habit of the hard work it takes to change others' habits.

Published on: Mar 21, 2019
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