Consumer behaviour change is the challenge of our time. An effective response will require increased capacity and capability across the sector: more skills, different skills and more people with those skills. If we are to achieve this, we need cross-sector collaboration with strong, independent leadership.
“We’ve done the easy stuff… the internal stuff that we can control,” he said. “We now have to work out how we tackle the more difficult challenge out there.” The challenge he alludes to is becoming increasingly familiar as sustainability’s low-hanging fruit becomes a depleted resource and brands are forced to reach higher and harder to maintain progress.
Whilst addressing upstream issues is by no means an easy feat, the challenge downstream, as Keith is well aware, is considerably more daunting. Staying with Unilever to make the point: If the majority of the carbon footprint is generated in the consumer usage phase, then the sustainability challenge is primarily a behaviour change challenge.
In order to respond effectively to this challenge, brands will need to progress through two overlapping phases:
Firstly, a process of getting to grips with the complexity of lifestyle-based behaviour change and how it differs from a brand’s traditional behaviour change objectives, such as influencing purchasing decisions and shifting brand preference.
I’ve written elsewhere on the complexity of consumer behaviour change and the need for new approaches and skills, so won’t revisit here. Suffice to say that despite some promising examples, most brands have still a long way to go on this journey.
The second phase — the bigger challenge — is the transition from delivering projects to embedding principles. That is, from heralding one-off flagships with a PR flurry to weaving behaviour change thinking into the very fabric of day-to-day brand and business activity.
Whilst this represents a longer-term ambition, there are emerging trends indicating that this mainstreaming process is already underway. Firstly, we have the explosion of popular behavioural science literature that is making new and not-so-new research into behavioural economics, cognitive neuroscience and social psychology more accessible and engaging.
Secondly, there are indications that behaviour change thinking is being woven into mainstream business and marketing thinking, most notably with the MBA programme run between the University of Stirling and the Open University, but also with ‘social marketing’ postgraduate programmes available through the business schools at the University of Brighton and University of Western England and CPD courses through CIM.
Thirdly, forward-thinking agencies and brands themselves are developing proprietary behaviour change tools to inspire wider application. Unilever’s Five Levers for Change is a useful framework for intervention development, but it will need unpacking and integrating if it is to be mainstreamed into brand thinking.
Similarly, Futerra’s recent ChangeMaker package is accessible and engaging, but it must be considered a springboard to — not a replacement for — deeper and wider behaviour change understanding. Outside of the core sustainable brands space, there is a plethora of useful starters-for-ten, with Ideo’s Human-Centred Design tool kit, the Institute for Government’s Mindspace report and especially Dan Lockton’s Design with Intent tool kit being three of the more robust.
Ultimately, this second-order challenge — mainstreaming behaviour change thinking into day-to-day brand activity — is a matter of building capability and capacity across the sustainable brands movement, not just in particular agency or brand settings. In short, we need more and different skills and more people with those skills.
As I have argued elsewhere, the sustainable business and brands movement has much to learn from a public sector that has been wrestling with behaviour change for decades, and the argument is equally compelling when it comes to capacity building.
Both the CDC in the US and Defra in the UK have worked hard over many years to raise awareness around and build capacity behaviour change in health and sustainability, respectively. However, the most instructive case in point is the Department of Health’s efforts to embed social marketing into the UK NHS.
With the publication of the Labour government’s Choosing Health White Paper in 2004, behaviour change approaches (via ‘social marketing’) were effectively sanctioned as a political priority. The subsequent strategic partnership between the Department of Health and the Consumer Council spawned the National Social Marketing Centre and launched a robust, ongoing effort to mainstream behaviour change skills across the NHS and beyond.
Under the leadership of Professor Jeff French, this activity had two defining features that the sustainable brands movement could learn from. Firstly, it aimed to establish a balance between accessibility and academic rigour. Great efforts were made to develop user-friendly tools and guidance, but the foundation in behaviour change theory and empirical research was always evident. This is a difficult balance to strike and one that the sustainable brand movement is struggling with.
Secondly, it was built upon a foundation of explicit, codified principles and processes — benchmark criteria, a planning model, intervention frameworks — which helped establish standards, guide practice and structure capacity-building efforts. There is so much loose talk about ‘behaviour change’ in the sustainable brands movement, we are in danger of it becoming a vacuous phrase that simultaneously means everything to everyone and nothing to no one. If we are to get better at it, we must first be clear on what it is.
With the arrival of the Coalition government, much of this momentum was largely lost as ‘social marketing’ was all but thrown out with the COI and a more cost-effective behaviour change flavour de jour was introduced in the shape of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team or ‘Nudge Unit,’ as it is more widely known.
Rather than being confined to history, the Department of Health/Social Marketing legacy could provide a springboard for the sustainable brands movement to get its behaviour change backyard in order and take a responsible lead on this defining issue. As cross-sector coalitions to tackle upstream sustainability issues become the norm, we have a clear precedent to apply the same collaborative approach downstream.
To a certain extent the fledgling UK Dream initiative is applying a similar principle to reframing sustainable lifestyles. However, there is a clear opportunity for impact by creating a behaviour change community of practice specific to the sustainable brands sector — a resource that is common to (and owned by) the sector, rather than individual agencies and brands.
Whilst a self-organised network of brands, agencies, practitioners and interested parties could begin to make progress on this, what we actually need is strong leadership and a clear, authoritative centre of gravity. Yes, brand and agency collaboration and co-creation are crucial, but strong, independent leadership is a prerequisite to progress at scale and speed.
So that’s the why, what and how sorted. Just the small matter of who…? Answers on a postcard please…