Coles gave in to the deafening screams of an inconsolable toddler, also known as a minority of pissed off consumers, but is the backflip on the plastic bag ban going to save the brand from going further down, down?  

A month after rolling out the plastic bag ban initiative, the supermarket giant decided to hand out the 15 Cents bags for free in a bid to ease the customers’ transition to reusable bags. The deed did not go unpunished. Aside from the expected criticism from various environmental lobby groups, consumers were also quick to dismiss the decision – cue negative brand sentiment:

Implementing new policies or a shift in brand strategy is no easy feat because repetitive consumer behaviour, especially when it comes to low-involvement products, is tough to dismantle. Fundamental understanding of human nature can help remedy some of the customer pain points during a transition such as the plastic bag ban:

1. Motivation

Motivation directs behaviour, it’s transient so once the initial excitement wears off, brands have to work hard to keep remodelling initial consumer behaviour into a habitual routine – in essence, keeping the fire burning.   

To put it into a marketing context, enter the room with a bang and have a killer lead-up campaign. At this stage, you want to sell the hook and spark the interest of the customer. This comes from understanding triggers, desires and fears.

2. Habit formation

Reminder (cues): The trigger that prompts you to start the behaviour, for example a short social message in the form of an email or social post that reads “Bring your reusable bag next time you shop”. In Australia, power companies found a way to remind their customer to consume less power by showing them the usage rate of a similar sized household with a similar number of occupants is more efficient than their own. The jealous and competitive side of the brain kicked in and as a result, electricity consumption slowed down.

Routine (action): Routine means repeating the action. This is facilitated by minor adjustments in the environment. For example, making reusable bags available at the entrance and counters where they are most visible to the shopper, giving them time to digest and understand the message. Over time, the constant cue to purchase a reusable bag will inspire shoppers to bring reusable bags everytime they think about going to the supermarket.

Reward (benefit): Providing something of value in return as a form of encouragement to reinforce good behaviour. This means figuring out what kind of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards drive habit – do users want more loyalty card points or a prettier reusable bag so they can finally get the social appraisal from a far more fashionable coworker? In Malaysia, Tesco’s Unforgettable Bag campaign was effective partly because it rewarded consumers for their actions with scannable discount codes printed on each bag, encouraging the “culture of reuse”. Understanding the different consumer personas and what drives them is an important factor when trying to shift behaviour for the long term.

3. Making it stick

Through practice and the right habit formation loop, actions become automated and process becomes ingrained, so how long does it take for people to get to this point? Various studies will suggest different numbers, but the general consensus is around 2 months (contrary to popular belief of 21 days). A study from UCL found that it takes approximately 66 days before we can switch to autopilot – this is with the help of the right reminders, routine and rewards in place to turn practice into automaticity. If we were to translate these findings into a marketing strategy then the obvious solution would be to have a long lead-up campaign to educate and support consumers along the way, giving them enough time to shift their behaviour.

From the community management perspective, as Nicole Reany points out, efficient change management is equally as important to achieving the set business outcomes. This means clearly explaining the “how” and  “why” directly to consumers so they understand their impact on the environment in this way, minimising the resistance to change.

While Coles plans their next move, Woolworths is sticking to their guns on the plastic bag ban and watching all of this unfold.