Building habits through free product

When I was a kid, my mom would, on occasion, drag me and my younger brother to the makeup counter at Macy’s.

It was, unequivocally, a horrible experience for two pre-teen boys.

While my brother and I ran through the racks of “fancy dresses,” nearly knocked over the occasional mannequin, and generally disrupted a department store in the way you’d expect two kids to do, I would catch my mom sitting there, trying on makeup. (Mostly because she’d yell at us to calm down.)

She never left with much, but it was usually enough to get over that “free gift with purchase” threshold.

Our house, over time, had a few branded makeup bags that fit into my mom’s routine. And they got left in different parts of the house. Because my brother and I were nosy enough to care, we knew what was in them: the products my mom bought—along with samples. Always samples.

My mom is, I think, one of the reasons I’m so into consumer behavior. I watched hers for a long time—both at the point of purchase and at home, when that purchase got put to use.

And what I learned from watching my mom was that she was perfectly normal in her behaviors.

The hooks that caught her—free makeup bags, samples—caught everyone else, too.

They still do.

Lately, in conversations with brands and in purchases of our own, we’re noticing a larger segment of DTC brands leaning into these hooks to increase product trials. It’s a good move, especially in light of increased challenges around acquisition.

Trials and samples can be an effective lever for growing product adoption within your existing customer base.

To really make it work, though, brands need to do more than toss extra product in an order and see what sticks. 

As we wrote earlier this summer:

The challenge, however, is adjusting to the reality that there is a gap between trial (first purchase) and loyalty (consistent repurchase behavior).

This, of course, runs counter to much of what is being written about loyalty today. Loyal buyers, it’s often written, are a matter of targeting “better customers,” pushing subscription at the time of acquisition, or building a rewards program.

To do this right, then, brands need to be consistent in their approach and measure the effectiveness of any program on a longitudinal basis. 

While there may be a lift at a 30/60/90 interval, that’s not really what you’re playing for here. The play is building a new habit around a new product. And that takes time.

After all, it took my mom quite a few years to build her set of makeup bags.