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Creating a turn-around
How can we encourage people to reconsider their engrained behaviours and consider something new?
What happens when we ask people to change from a behaviour they have been doing without any problems for a long time? This is a challenge we are frequently set, often against the backdrop of our current behaviour having been one that we have been encouraged to do.
For example, take compacted household cleaning items such as fabric care. After decades of promoting large boxes as examples of good value, FMCG brands are increasingly encouraging people to buy smaller boxes containing concentrated form of the product (as this offers environmental benefits such as reduced transport and packaging). Or in the soft drinks industry, after decades of promoting multi-serve bottles to drive volume, the decline in out of home sales due to COVID has meant that brands are now eagerly seeking to encourage people to buy more profitable single serve options. Or in public health, in a slightly different way, there are a range of discretionary vaccines that governments have paid little or no attention to promoting but public health bodies are keen to encourage take-up in susceptible groups (e.g. shingles or meningitis-B vaccination).
Hence there are many examples where a U-turn in behaviours is required as we ask people to rethink their assumptions that underpin their current behaviour. But just how do we do this? In many cases what people have been doing has been successful for them, or at the very least not caused a problem. It is certainly the case that to encourage people to operate differently, the marketer, policy maker or public health body needs to work hard.
The science of routinized behaviours
Using a behavioural science lens, the challenge we have is that after years of encouraging one direction then our actions have become intuitive. Of course, they are not ‘automatic’ (as is sometimes suggested) but we do not deliberate over them.
We see this as reflecting the way we have mastered the environment: for example, we carefully and deliberatively learn how to play a sport such as tennis but once we have learnt basic groundstrokes and volleys, for example, , our actions become fluid and intuitive. Why would we think about how to hold our racket once we have learnt these different strokes? It just comes naturally, working well enough for us to enjoy playing the game. We may be happily doing this for years, not really seeing the need or have considered change. Of course, something can happen to disrupt this: let’s say a new friend happens to be a tennis coach who tells us we could improve our game. Suddenly we are curious and a little less confident that we have mastered the game. Our more intuitive processing is disrupted. The coach then shows us that the way we have been holding the racket could be improved if we use a different grip. That means we rethink everything, going back to deliberating how we operate.
And so it is with the foods we eat, cleaning products we use, hair products and so on. Of course, within the intuitive choices we make, we may operate within a range (so we could change brand, flavour and so on sometimes) but it remains fundamentally the same behaviour and as such operates within the boundaries of our more instinctual processing. But as we saw from the examples earlier, there is an increasing need to make more fundamental changes, to step outside of these intuitive choices. So how do we go about this?
The first challenge here is how to attract attention to this issue. For something to be intuitive then it surely reflects a mastery of the environment – it is a ‘good enough’ solution, this means we no longer need to attend to other matters. If it was not, then we would still be deliberating over alternatives. We need to ‘disrupt’ this intuitive processing: to do this as we outlined before, we can use a simple scale consisting of four items which can be used to the locate relevant strategy:
Confidence in the choice
Ease of recalling reasons for the choice
Feeling of ‘rightness’ in the choice
Curiosity about alternative choices
Let’s apply this to a tangible example from an area in which we do a lot of work in that of vaccines: people will often discount the relevance and risk of the condition to be inoculated against. We can consider that we have mastered the risks we are aware of and understandably are not in a constant state of alert for those which have not been flagged as a problem (see here for an article on the way we make risk assessments around vaccination).
With this in mind we therefore need to find ways to disrupt the intuitive processing, to get people to stop and reflect and see that they may be more at risk than they assume. We might challenge the assumptions people have about risk by challenging how they came to that conclusion, to show that that sense of ‘rightness’ may be displaced. Sharing how people are more vulnerable than they might have assumed and that the effects are more serious than they were aware are clearly ways to do this.
Exactly the same mechanisms apply to our other use cases: it is not uncommon for brands to challenge intuitive processes by showing people being surprised about how good something tastes, creating curiosity to give the product a try. Or offering counter-intuitive ways of serving it to interrupt the ease with which a choice is being made, which could be done by offering a single serve soft drink instead of a multi-serve soft drink. By understanding the nature of the intuitive processes, we can then find ways to disrupt them.
From disrupting processes to building new behaviours
Importantly though, disrupting our more intuitive processes is not enough. If we consider this as the ‘set-up’, we then also need to help people to find a means to resolve things, to create a new behaviour. There are a number of other mechanisms (using a behaviour change framework) that are then relevant:
Outcome expectations: We help people to see what the outcomes are of adopting a new behaviour – of course on the topic of vaccination this may be peace of mind (an emotional outcome) of being inoculated. But for single serve drinks this might be showing the way this can support a special moment with the family at home. With compacted washing powder it might be about showing how this can result in just as good outcomes as the usual option but also with the benefit of being environmentally positive
Routines: We all get used to operating in certain ways and the routines we have allow us to manage things well, emotionally, socially and behaviourally: this means that having disrupted people’s thinking, we need to help them to routinise the new behaviour. For example, we may suggest making the vaccinations part of other health protection behaviour: if they have an annual ‘flu-jab’ we could suggest that other vaccination is done at the same time. We can see where there are opportunities to occupy a consumption moment for a single serve drink – it may be difficult to do so with the main meal and where the multi-serve option is well established but perhaps it could work at lunchtime or before the meal in the evening. And with compacted goods, it can be aligned with other shopping routines that people may do such as buying plant-based food.
Identity: An important, but often overlooked aspect is the way in which our social identity can both support a change in behaviour but also be a significant barrier. So, for example, some groups see themselves as believers in natural remedies to help the body protect itself, rather than using vaccines. The challenge here is then to consider ways in which vaccinations can be communicated as operating with natural bodily processes, so it is then more consistent with their identities. Single serve drinks may not be consistent with identities people may have of being ‘savvy shoppers’, which would lead them to multi-serve, so we need to align this with other identities people may have of being responsible for the wellbeing of their family by, in part, offering affordable luxuries. And for compacted goods, some people may think that those sorts of environmentally friendly options are for ‘eco-warriors’ so we may want to help people see that they align with their identities as innovators, keeping up with new developments.
Changing behaviours that have been in place for long periods of time is not straight forward. People have those behaviours for good reason, so it is important to offer a solid case for change. And, of course, people will not adopt new behaviours if they cannot see how they will benefit them. But policy makers and marketers will of course want to make their case in a way that will at least be given some deliberation. As with Rome, new behaviours are not built in a day, it takes time and support is likely to be needed to make the case over an extended period. However, the key point is that we need to consider both elements of the decision process; the set-up (and disruption of intuitive processing) and the resolution (offering ways to facilitate new behaviours).