Playing the behaviour change game

’Behaviour change’ is the new mantra for campaigning pressure groups, the COI, TfL, and local government alike. Vincent Nolan, founder of 2CV explains what it is, how it differs from mainstream marketing activity and how marketers need to adapt and develop campaigns that can deliver it.

Vincent Nolan
Vincent Nolan

Marketing has always been in the behaviour change game. Switching from Coke to Pepsi is a behaviour change as much as remembering to recycle. But, encouraging people to switch from one behaviour to another, even one that appears to better suit their needs, profitable as it may be, isn’t what this new focus is about. The behaviour change agents are trying to get us all to alter established and engrained behaviour, like commuting by car or letting the water drain through the sink as you brush your teeth. It’s about getting us to change our behaviour and do something we don’t necessarily want to do. Furthermore, often the immediate benefit is uncertain and hard to quantify.

Achieving sustained behaviour change requires us to question our assumptions, review our methods and embrace new thinking from the behavioural economists.

We are creatures of habit who find change quite uncomfortable. These days there are few people who will argue against the case for reducing our carbon footprint, making better use of our resources and staying healthy. But the gap between this apparent desire to do the things we feel we should and taking effective action is remarkable.

Our job as marketers is to bridge the knowing-doing gap. Whether positive or painful, we must effect a change in people’s learned behaviour and get them doing what they know they ought to. This means we need to properly understand the behaviour change process and the various stages an individual may go through on a change journey, from lack of awareness, through the trigger moment and finally to a sustained and normalised change in behaviour. In other words, it’s no longer good enough for the marketing community to focus on simply changing attitudes; we need to deliver actual and measurable behaviour change today.

Behaviour change is a multi-step journey, more complex than just a set of barriers and motivations. Awareness and interest in the issue needs to be considered, then a powerful trigger that engenders a change moment followed by support, advice and potentially tools to help sustain the behaviour change. Behavioural economics, which draws from various complementary disciplines including psychology, neuroscience and observed macroeconomic behaviour, provides important insights and practical tips to achieve sustained behaviour change. Interestingly, they suggest using our fundamental desire to conform is a powerful motivation for individuals to change.

A recent example from the US found that appealing to consumers at a rational level to save power to avoid climate change and save money had little effect. But when the fliers that accompanied bills didn’t mention climate change or finance, but instead compared each customer’s power usage to that of their neighbours in similar sized houses and offered practical tips for catching up, like turning off lights and lowering the temperature settings of water heaters, they achieved an average fall in energy consumption of 2 %.

Many of the actions we are seeking to change require fundamental changes in behaviour, which take effort on our part. The complex web of ingrained behaviour, denial and inertia needs to be understood and each specific case throws us a new challenge. We need to understand how existing behaviour is embedded in the lifestyle of the individual and what else would need to change along with it to prompt a sustained change. Learning how people are currently approaching the issue, their barriers to change and looking for practical strategies that don’t necessarily take the issue on explicitly, are all part of the solution. And as we’re human, we have to allow for people to err, but gently coax them back on track.

This is a fascinating challenge for marketing and one, which requires a behaviour change from us as an industry too. We have to better understand what motivates us at a core level (sociability) and how we tend to deal with stuff we don’t like or don’t want to change (avoidance).

The rules have changed. As we better understand the complexity of human behaviour, marketers need to consider the importance of sophisticated research to get to the heart of the problem. This helps develop marketing programmes based on a behavioural economic model that delivers measurable changes in behaviour.


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