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A Marketer’s Equation to Calculate for Impulse

A Marketer's Equation to Calculate for Impulse

Ben Kunz

finger pressing clock

Try this physics exercise to change consumer momentum

Every marketer wants to get someone out there to do something. But people have inertia, either starting from behavioral ground zero, or more likely are already in motion doing something else related to your product. This “competitive behavior” dynamic is often missed in campaign plans, because as marketers focus on their inner product attributes to build brand, message, offer, creative and media campaigns, they often forget the winning dynamic is not just pushing out messages for response—it’s also getting customers to leave good alternatives.

To solve this puzzle, let’s take a brief visit to physics class.

Consider our Earth and Moon flying through space, where it would take a lot to knock either out of orbit, and the formula for momentum is easy to understand. In physics, momentum (p) = mass (m) times velocity (v). Like shifting our planet, any given consumer who really likes something other than your product (think of this as her mass) and has prior habits related to your category (think of this as her velocity) is going to be hard to move to your product.


In his book “The Power of Habit,” Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Charles Duhigg notes that 45% of most consumer actions occur on auto-pilot. Some marketing categories have grown by building new habits: None of our ancestors chewed gum, brushed their teeth, or rubbed deodorant on their armpits, yet for many today, these are routines. Yet creating new habits is remarkably hard to do, and once locked in, nearly 1 in 2 buying transactions is tied to old habits.

But there is a way to shift consumers’ habitual momentum—and it’s also a simple formula (the last, we promise!). Physicists call what changes momentum impulse, defined as force multiplied by time. You can visualize impulse by imagining Superman trying to stop a speeding train: He swoops down from the sky in front of the speeding locomotive, holds out his arms in impulse, but has to exert a lot of force while some time goes by. Superman pushes hard, and the wooden ties fly away for yards under his sliding feet, before the train grinds to a halt. Force and time stop the train’s momentum.

To change consumer momentum, we need force and time. These are best applied to what Duhigg noted are the four primary triggers of habits: time of day, mood, prior triggering actions, or surrounding people. Most consumer routines are on auto-pilot, but these are common instigators that, like alarm clocks, get us subconsciously moving in action. You likely buy your Starbucks coffee at the same time each morning, drive subconsciously to the same grocery store late on Thursday night, and check certain social media when you believe your friends will be there posting. All habits have triggers.

hand pulling back pinball lever

Put all of this together, and we have a simple workshop exercise that can help you refine your marketing plan. So grab a whiteboard, and map out four things:

  • Model “behavioral” momentum competitors. First, list the alternatives to what you want to sell, thinking expansively beyond direct product competition—to the list of behavioral analogs you need to overcome. If you work for a bank, for instance, your competition isn’t just other banks—it may be emerging apps, bill-payment software, trips to Staples for office supplies, point-of-sale interactions, or any alternative behaviors that distract from financial interaction mindshare. Marketers of mobile apps should list all the competing behavior, outside their category, that takes up similar mobile time. Promoters of travel destinations may list all the other similar “fantasy” research habits consumers have online when not plotting their next vacation. Think of your true competitors as the alternative momentums out there you need to redirect or overcome.
  • Score competing momentum on two dimensions: mass and time. Then, model the relative attractiveness and usage frequency of alternatives. Think of this as the mass (attractiveness) and velocity (frequency of use) of each competing habit you need to overcome. If your mobile app has 20 primary competing consumer behaviors, which of those is most attractive? Which do they do most frequently? That’s where you need to counter.
  • Then, list the triggers for each top competing behavior. Using Duhigg’s four trigger categories, build a simple customer journey map of what starts consumers in alternative behaviors. What time of day (or month, or year)? What prior triggering actions? What mood or surrounding influencer group? If possible, support this with qualitative research or direct interviews with customers. This exercise defines the points of behavioral instigation where you have a shot at shifting competitor momentum.
  • Finally, plan your countering force and time. How can advertising, communication, pricing, access or promotions intercept these momentum triggers with as much force, and required time frequency, to shift behavior? This exercise is one where you customize your prior messaging or media plan to fit within the trigger points that spur competitive actions. It may not be enough to launch a TV or video ad, for instance, if the real trigger of competing behavior is the moment your potential customer turns on her mobile phone each Saturday morning.

Run this exercise and you’ll likely find blind spots in your current marketing plan—as you understand existing customer momentum, the real barrier to sale. You’ll gain a better picture of competing behaviors, estimate their momentum as conceptual mass-attractiveness and velocity-usage, map the triggers of these behaviors, and finally refine your marketing force-and-time intercepts.

Yes, this is all boring physics, and formulas can be hard to deploy in reality. But consumers, like atoms, adhere to laws of physical behavior. If Superman can stop a train, surely you can run a workshop to plot your future customers’ current momentum.

Ben Kunz is executive vice president of strategy at Mediassociates, a media planning, buying and analytics agency based in Connecticut.