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Behavior Change
Customer Behavior Change:
The Holy Grail of Conscious Brands

“If we can’t get the consumer involved, we will always be behind the curve,” Marks & Spencer CEO Marc Bolland said when he launched the retailer’s ‘Plan A’ sustainability stakeholder consultation.

The logic is compelling. Changing customer behavior is a natural part of the sustainable business strategies businesses must create to achieve long-term success. And instead of being seen as an extension of CSR strategies they will be seen more as Long-Term Marketing strategies that are creating the company’s preferred future operating environment.

Here’s why: As soon as companies start looking longer term, they are forced to consider context. That will show with certainty that they face a number of burning platforms that, unless they act, will prevent them having a sustainable future.

We currently have seven billion people living on one small planet; by 2050 that could be nine billion. Around three billion more people will move into middle classes with aspirations for better lifestyles and more stuff. Together we will put more pressure on resources, meaning demand for energy could double, leaving a gap in energy provision equivalent to about the whole of the energy sector in 2000. We will face water scarcity. By 2030 global water supplies will satisfy only about 60% of demand. We simply cannot sustain current lifestyles.

That is why companies are increasingly creating programmes of action — such as Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan — to transform the company throughout and use fewer resources. It’s because they simply wish to remain in business and grow within the limits of our planet. However, it’s not enough. At Unilever, for example, consumer use of products accounts for roughly 68% of its greenhouse gas emissions. So even with the best of intentions, a company cannot manage its impact without actively engaging its customers and encouraging them to consider more sustainable lifestyles.

The fact is, for the companies at the leading edge of this, encouraging sustainable business is less a risk and more an opportunity. PepsiCo is refreshing its entire product set around a nutritionally positive portfolio. IBM is making billions from their Smarter Planet marketing programme. Nissan and Ford have committed themselves to the electric vehicle market. General Electric’s Jeff Immelt has said: “We are going to solve tough customer and global problems and make money doing it.”

But how do we persuade consumers to act more responsibly? Let’s look at how brands are responding and how the marketing discipline is evolving as a result.

A number of companies are using knowledge of behavior change to “nudge” customers into action. Unilever has defined five levers for sustainable living. It benefits from insight into behavioral change including practical “nudges” such as the use of social proof (if other people like me are doing it, it’s likely that I will), choice editing (e.g. have people opt out rather than opt in), framing (how you frame the marketing message based on a knowledge of what will motivate them to act) and prompts (reminders of how to act at the point of relevance in space and time; much like the use of the green man for crossing the road).

Examples in practice are recycling icons on Coke cans (prompt), removing harmful ingredients from foods (choice editing), the introduction of “me-size” ready-made food portions (prompt), telling people in hotels the percentage of people who have re-used their towel in their hotel room (social proof, framing) or providing apps that make sustainable behaviors — from eating well to drinking responsibly — fun.

But nudging is not enough. To achieve real change at scale, you need to see customer behavior change as a discipline and begin using the same professional standards as traditional marketing – except you are marketing behaviors, not products. You change one behavior, one audience at a time.

This form of customer behavior change can only succeed if it follows a process.

For behavior change, the idea of advertising or communications people simply seeking a great creative solution and changing what people know will indeed label them as Mad Men. To change behavior you need to change what people think, feel, believe and do, not simply what they know.

This is a discipline that owes a great deal to social marketing, which is much more mature in the public sector than the private sector (Imagine that: marketers learning from government agencies). But the reality is that there are few examples at scale of how a private company has successfully changed the behavior of millions.

This is despite the fact that the business case for action is compelling:

  • Car companies cannot expect to simply supply electric vehicles and transform the market; their use is a lifestyle change and requires the use of behavior-change techniques
  • Banks cannot expect to persuade the 50% of people who do not save for their future to begin to do so unless again they use the principles and practice of behavior change at scale
  • And utilities cannot expect customers to save energy or save water without applying incentives or prompts

In fact, utilities are probably ahead of the rest of the private sector in implementing behavior change. Here is an example from UK water company Anglian Water: The company wanted to reduce the number of sewer blockages and sewer flooding incidents.

The industry in the past (around the world) has always tended to go for engineering solutions. We proposed a behavior change solution. We worked with Anglian Water to get a deep understanding of the material streams that were causing blockages. Then we identified the audience segments that were causing most of the problems by putting the wrong stuff down sinks and loos.

We conducted deep research to understand the benefits and barriers of current and preferred behaviors. We used motivation theory to understand the absolute key persuasive motivators. We developed recommendations for strategies (ex: changes to infrastructure, new products or changes to public policy — not just communications) and interventions (where and when you can effectively touch customers and influence behavior).

We then launched the Keep It Clear campaign, which resulted in a 50% reduction in blockages in the pilot area within six weeks.

The process works again and again. We have changed the behavior of millions in health, the environment and other areas. And yet the discipline is still poorly understood.

The leaders are already using the social marketing approach as a discipline. There is interest in energy, water, retail, construction and financial services. Our new research seeks to capture the nature and scale of the market (but won’t be released until later in the year). In the meantime I can say that based on the evidence, behavior change practice will become a marketing norm.

So here’s how it all hangs together. Companies look to the future. They define the probable future. When they don’t like the look of it, they then define their preferred future. That always means managing risk. It always means market opportunity. They then create transformational plans to achieve that preferred future. There are actions they can take. But there are always actions they need others to take — employees, suppliers and customers.

That’s where customer behavior change comes in. Whatever it’s called – social marketing, customer behavior change or sustainable behavior change, it’s the next big thing.


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