Selling Snow to the Eskimos


Some years ago, as I walk around my supermarket in Melbourne Australia, I notice bottled water had become a high seller. I wonder as it is known that Melbourne has one the purest water supplies in the world.

Like selling snow to Eskimos this paradox defies logic. But the marketing guys who figured it out cleaned on bottled water as a new phenomenon.

To create this new category, rather than focus on changing buying habits, they did it by selling the value as a health solution with a fashion image built around drinking bottled water. This also leveraged trends in Asia and parts of Europe where water is sold in bottles as the natural tap variety is not so good. This became a brand new industry that got people to part with their money for something that was still basically free and as good from the tap.

That got me to thinking about why people inexplicably change their habits when experts say it cannot be done. Like in clever saying about habit goes something like this:

To change a habit always leaves “a bit:, And then when you try again there is still one more bit, and so it continues.

But before I jumped to conclusion about habits I have figured there are several types…..

There is of course the endemic habit that is there because it has always been so.

For example when I went to live in London in 1970’s I wondered why people seemed to always stand in a queue when they saw one. I learned this was a legacy from World War days when food was scarce. Rationing stamps issued, by the government to regulate shortages, had in turn created a habit in people to joined a queue as it mean they got food.

This type of habit is so hard shift as it lingers even now in Britain having been passed on to the future generations, and in spite of the decades of affluence.

And then there is the leaned habit that may often be based on folk law which in turn may be out of date.

Like the one exposed when an mother’s inquisitive daughter asked why she folded the leg bone back on the ham before she roasted it. “I leaned that from my mum”, she said. Not satisfied the girl went to granny and asked her the same question. “My mother taught me was Granny’s response too. Still determined to find the answer the gild then went to her great grandmother who replied, “oh that is simply; In my day we only had small ovens and it would not fit unless you folded the leg bone back”

This granny’s folk law type habit persists through ignorance and even when uncovered it may still be hard to change.

And then there is the cult habit.

I only began to understand religion well when I lived in a Muslim community and my driver in Indonesia sought my approval to stop the care for a pee. He took with him a water bottle. When I asked about that later, he explained it is part of his religion to clean his penis.

Of course many others follow the same healthy habit but not always in the name of religion. It was then I realized that religious administrations create rules that become habits for the good of the community they serve.

Thinking about changing these is generally impossible and one should never try unless a cult takes hold that places a community at risk.

And last on my list the environment habit

For example in Bangkok the queues of traffic create an insoluble problem. as every day traffic blocks the city unmercifully. It makes no sense to have a car there, yet minions still join traffic jams daily to face the residue of poor town planning of centuries ago that set the habit. I once recall seeing a traffic jam form in Bangkok as people joined it for no obvious reason in spite of alternative routes being there.

The massive networks of freeways that have been built in the last 2 decades have not overcome the problem. Jams continue even with high quality mass transport services in place. Sky Trains, The Underground, Bus and Water Ferry services have all fail to reduce the pressure. Traffic management, still struggle to handle the habits of generations that continue use the now highly taxed motor car

Like many large cities around the world Bangkok is a mix of old and new that sprawls through narrow streets. So like the Londoners, with their food queuing habit, I wonder if the Thais have a deep seeded belief that jams, no matter how painful, in the end are seen as the way to get out of the city.

This type of habit may take an earth quake or some such other unacceptable disaster to bring about change so it always going to be a long hail to fix the symptoms.

So it seems selling change in habits in the market place is a paradox. But by focusing on something new to build a following, does work. as long as the aim is not changing what is, but on creating a new category to bring perceived new value which like Melbourne bottled water, has become the new folk law.

I wonder if using this approach can also change the habits is all our large cities of the world.

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