How should adland embrace behaviour change?

Dan GibsonIn this guest post, Dan Gibson ponders what the practice of behavioural sciences means for the advertising industry in Asia.

A creative agency of this parish recently announced the launch of a new unit, specialising in “Behaviour Change”.

Is this interest in discernible behaviour change always as scrupulously evident in the creative awards submissions of that same agency? We will leave that debate to rage elsewhere (mostly on the pages of this website, it seems).

Today, it is this notion of ‘Behaviour Change’ that we are concerned with.

It’s undeniably true that the best communications work has always sought to instigate an active response, literally a change in behaviour, as opposed to that catch-all objective of ‘awareness’ which clients think agencies love, but which agencies actually tend to dread for the softness of its focus.

Locally one thinks of campaigns like HPB’s ‘I Quit’ and NTUC Income’s  ‘Pick up Life Insurance’ which have been designed around instigating very specific behaviours. [Watch the case study for I quit, here]

But is behaviour change now something different to ‘Behaviour Change’?

What do we understand from this canny conferring of caps?

And why create a separate unit?

In short, Behaviour Change or Behavioural Economics is rapidly becoming an entity in and of itself, distinct from the communications industry, a science to be studied, a business to be built.

It’s already happened at a political level. Any enlightened government worth its salt has assigned Behavioural Insights teams, or ‘Nudge Squads’, to nudge its citizens towards making choices that are better for them as individuals and, most saliently, better for the nation’s own P&L as well.

Nudge Squads have created Behavioural Science applications across issues as diverse as Recycling through to Road tax compliance and even energy-efficient Loft Insulation, all built from a number of established and empirically proven Principles of Nudging. Singapore’s MOM is currently trialling a scheme in which people defaulting on levy payments are being sent pink reminder letters to cue penalty notices from phone and utilities companies.

Nudges like this are felt far beyond traditional communications. Even ardent advocates of a Straits Times double-page spread are now coming to understand that the most effective strategies for topline growth may occasionally lie outside of conventional communications. No more “Advertising’s the answer – what’s the question?

In fact, sometimes conventional communications is not just ineffective, it’s actively unhelpful.

Beware Pickpockets’ signs in London have increased the incidence of pickpocketing. Why? Because people’s instinctive first behaviour upon seeing the warning is to check for their wallets which in turn reveals their wallet location to the naughty snatchers standing by.

It has long been theorised that the job of communications was to change attitudes, and that in turn would change behaviour. Behavioural Science is now helping reveal that the opposite is often true. In many cases it’s more efficient to change behaviour first. The role of communication becomes to change people’s actions – sometimes almost unconsciously – more than to change their minds.

Furthermore, we can actually make the case that this is especially true here in the Asia region. We have all heard it asserted that consumers here are more rational than elsewhere, that creative agencies don’t understand this and continue to suffer from collective ‘delusions of brandeur’.

Proof points for these assertions can be elusive but if this is truly a more transactional consumer environment than the West, then really concentrating on getting people to change their actions rather than their minds may frequently be the most effective strategy.

As a creative industry then, and as business partners to our clients, we need to be evidencing a deeper understanding of this whole field, of the most effective ways in which we can harness behavioural insights for commercial effect.

Sometimes this will still be via creative platforms. Equally, sometimes this will exist entirely outside of communications. Practitioners of Experience Design are helping direct us to very specific points in the user journey where nudges can unlock incremental value across areas as diverse as distribution (Walgreen’s Pharmaceutical Re-Order app), packaging (RipeSense stickers on fresh produce that change colour over time) or product itself (Suncayr’s sunscreen marker pen that tells you when you need to re-apply).

Yes, this means we need relationships beyond the marketing department, and an enlightened client approach in general. However if we demonstrate the value we can add, we will reap the rewards. Evolve or die.

Creating a unit is a good start. But surely this has to become more central to our proposition than is implied by the creation of another separate silo, necessarily operating at the fringes?

As an industry, it is indeed time to change our behaviour towards Behaviour Change.

Dan Gibson is the group managing director of Havas Creative Group.


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