The Stretch Approach

Short Term


Relapse rates on people trying to quit smoking are stark. Only a small percentage of people actually manage to quit and those who do typically take a number of attempts before they finally break the habit. The addictiveness of nicotine and the repeatedly rehearsed habitual behaviours surrounding smoking make it particularly hard to stop. It’s been a public health priority for decades and the numbers of smokers has steadily decreased, but we could still do more.

Launched in October 2012, Stoptober marked an interesting and brave shift in the way we approach encouraging people to quit smoking. If you haven’t heard of it already, Stoptober is a month-long challenge for people to quit smoking. Just for the month of October. What’s brave and different about it is the second part of the unspoken campaign subtext.

“Challenge yourself to stop just for one month. You can always start again in November.”

Until then, stop smoking campaigns had focused on the forever message. “You shouldn’t smoke, full stop. And if you do smoke, stop now before it damages you beyond repair and don’t smoke ever again.” The forever message is a really hard one, especially for an addict.

But we know two things. Firstly, that people who can successfully quit for 4 weeks are most likely to be able to give up permanently. This is because the hardest battle is with the cravings, which weaken after the first couple of weeks. Secondly, humans are wired to think more in the short-term. A short challenge is a fixed thing with an end date, such as a week, two weeks or a month, and is easier to comprehend than something that rolls on and on forever. It’s not all-or-nothing any more. Instead it’s a “try it for a bit and see if you can stretch it out a bit longer”.

In a similar way companies like Amazon Prime, Netflix and Adobe take this approach too. They aim to shape longer-term consumer behaviour by offering customers a shorter-term free trial. By the time the end of the free trial they hope the customer has reshaped some of their viewing and buying behaviours and will want to continue their subscription.

If you are encouraging a long-term change in customer behaviour, can you start with a short-term challenge? And then work on stretching it once your customers have experienced the benefits.