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Behavior Change
Barriers and Benefits:
Changing Behavior Through Social Marketing

Promoting behavior change is something that Lifebuoy knows well. Launched in 1894 by William Level in the UK as the Royal Disinfectant Soap to stop cholera in Victorian England, it went on to be known as the “red soap” throughout the twentieth century. Back in the early days, Lifebuoy launched programs in schools showing children the importance of handwashing at key occasions.

Promoting behavior change is something that Lifebuoy knows well. Launched in 1894 by William Level in the UK as the Royal Disinfectant Soap to stop cholera in Victorian England, it went on to be known as the “red soap” throughout the twentieth century. Back in the early days, Lifebuoy launched programs in schools showing children the importance of handwashing at key occasions.

Today, Lifebuoy’s handwashing behavior change program is making milestones in many markets where the brand is sold. Its campaign influences behavior change by making the benefits of regular handwashing relevant to the interests of target audiences, the desired behavior easy to adopt, and the handwashing habit rewarding to maintain. Like any other behavior change initiative, Lifebuoy's marketers understand that it’s not easy to get people to change the way they do or feel about certain things. Yet efforts focused on influencing handwashing behavior can save lives of millions of children in developing countries and have tremendous health impact on communities. This is the main challenge of many social marketing programs: Confront a deeply held belief or entrenched habit, and challenge the status quo.

Social marketing’s unique principles

As a distinct discipline, social marketing aims at promoting behaviors that benefit society as well as the individual.[i] Alan R.Andreasen — a social marketing veteran — points out that “social marketing can be applied wherever one has a target audience and a behavior one wants to influence.”[ii] Whether it’s to convince families in Africa to use insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria, to reduce drunk driving, increase family planning in developing countries, or convince people to use public transportation, the objective in each case is to influence behavior change.

The core of social marketing is its audience orientation — it seeks to understand what people want and why they do what they do. It adopts an audience-centered instead of an organization-centered approach to gain a more systemic view of the issue. At the heart of this approach is the exchange theory: The new behavior must be seen as having higher value than the current behavior. As Kotler and Lee explain: “Simply telling someone that a new behavior would be good for him or her is not enough.”[iii]

The final bottom line is not simply to enhance awareness or change attitudes towards an issue, but to motivate and empower people to take the desired behavior. To that end, social marketing makes the distinction between having an initial impact and a lasting impact. This distinction is important as we live in a world in which our attention span and commitment are constantly being tested by competitive messages and offerings.

Inspired by social marketing principles, the following are some tips that would help improve the effectiveness of behavior change initiatives in various contexts:

All 4Ps must reinforce the brand promise. The marketing mix strategies (known as 4P: product, price, place, and promotion) must consistently support the vision of what the brand should be for consumers. Having a strong brand identity (what the brand is about) and brand image (how customers think about the brand) can help enhance the credibility and authenticity of your messages. Since everything about the company communicates something about the brand, it’s important to have an integrated strategy in which all components work coherently to deliver the same impact. Take the case of Patagonia — its anti-consumption campaign was well-received in sustainability circles because it was viewed as consistent with the “limiting growth” corporate philosophy guiding the company’s business operations. Patagonia’s transparency concerning the sustainability challenges in its own supply chain helps reinforce its brand identity. The “reduce what you buy” message is reflected in the quality and durability of its products. Its own efforts on carbon footprint reduction enhance its brand image. In many ways, its branding embodies the values associated with the desired behavior.

Reach for the low-hanging fruit first. The Stages of Change mode[iv] used in social marketing is helpful to understand the various stages that someone goes through in a change situation. Whether a target audience is at a contemplation stage (thinking about the behavior) or preparation and action stage (ready to act, but yet to take the first step) has implications for strategy formulation. In recent years, issues such as buying local and overconsumption have come to the public’s attention through movements led by individuals and groups who advocate for sustainability and eco-friendly practices. Behaviors such as “giving up clothes shopping for a year,” or “cutting back on digital stimulation” evolve over time. Someone who shops three times a week cannot be expected to turn into a person who commits to a “shopping diet.” Behavior influence campaigns are more effective if they tailor messages to the stage at which target audiences are found. Instead of trying to get an immediate response, a behavior change strategy should try to slowly move the target audiences closer to the desired behavior. Focus should be placed on targeting those who have thought through the behavior and are ready to take action[v]. As the “one size fits all” approach never works, it’s more effective to focus your strategy on those segments of people who share the same motivations, values or lifestyles. The “Don’t Buy” campaign is most effective with people who acknowledge that there’s overconsumption in today’s society and begin to think seriously about resisting the trend.

Understand how the target audience adopts innovation. Since different types of adopters accept an innovation at different points in time, behavior change strategies need to understand both individual behavior and the mechanisms by which the innovation is spread to a larger group of adopters[vi]. Take the case of collaborative consumption — for people to participate, trust has to be developed among those who see themselves as part of a community. Trust is more likely to happen when there is shared purpose and values, and when members of the community see themselves as actors who can bring about a vision of change.[vii] People who are early adopters of the idea of shared ownership are drawn by the notion of making the most out of resources and assets, as well as the peer-to-peer connections that are often more “emotionally involved” than mere business transactions. The sharing economy, however, is still a new concept to most consumers, some of which will follow suit only after the concept has attained broad acceptance. The spread of the idea will depend on how users or “core members” develop social networks that facilitate information sharing and support. Bridging relationships is also necessary to bring in people from outside of the network and convert them into active members.

Give new meaning to the target behavior. In most cases, it’s necessary for people to understand the issue before they can “do” something about it. Barriers to change are often internal to the target audience and can be related to knowledge, beliefs, or abilities[viii]. It helps that a behavior change program has a knowledge objective (what you want your audience to know), as well as a belief objective (what you want your audience to believe or feel). To reduce waste, Starbucks rewards customers with a discount when they bring in personal tumblers. As in any behavior change initiative, the target audience in this case feels that they have to make an exchange between benefits and costs[ix]. More people will adopt the new behavior if they see that the benefits exceed the costs. Starbucks’ goal would be to help customers associate their behavior change with something greater than just getting a discount, that the ultimate goal of reducing cup waste sent to the landfill is much more important than the inconvenience of bringing their own tumbler.

Empower change agents to lead. Organizations that market products and services to the base of the pyramid find out that regardless of the marketing hype, customers do not dare to take a risk on an unproven product. Surprisingly, they care more about quality than price and it’s their neighbors’ experiences that convince them of quality. It could take the entire community or whole village to make the change happen. Tostan, for example, is credited with nearly ending female genital cutting in Senegal by taking time to build relationships with the local communities and moving the change forward in small steps using community-led development. The notion of using an entire village to bring about social change is reflected in the number of online communities that have been created to connect people and organizations together toward a common cause. This type of initiative provides a platform for change agents, opinion leaders or “Connectors” to make the case for the behavior change and engage in a meaningful dialogue with the target audience. Regardless of how change agents emerge, they can play powerful roles in community building and social change[x]. The challenge for behavior change initiatives is to identify and empower change agents to lead.

In the end, not all behavior change programs can point to a direct outcome as in the case of handwashing. But many initiatives can be more effective if they carefully consider the perceived benefits and barriers from the target audience’s perspective.