What can marketing learn from behavioural science?

By Rosie Webster | Consultant

The Playbook


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June 19, 2017 | 5 min read

The marketing industry has been attempting to change people’s behaviour for years. Advertisers use associations of beauty and sex to encourage us to buy products we might not even need; retailers know exactly how and where to place items in a store or on a web page in order to encourage us purchase more.

So, presumably the marketers have got it sussed and don’t need to learn anything from those of us on the academic side of behavioural science? Well, not necessarily, and especially not if they are seeking to change behaviour in a deeper way than simply buying a different brand of shampoo. In the world of health and getting people to change their lifestyle, things get a lot more difficult.

Many marketing campaigns base effectiveness on reach and response. We can all recall road safety or anti-smoking campaigns which shocked us and stuck in our heads. However, behaviour is complex, and campaigns that are shocking and memorable aren’t always the most effective if implemented the wrong way.

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Behavioural science

When we’re trying to change people’s behaviour for the better, the following are supremely important:

– Defining what you’re trying to change, and in what audience

– Understanding the behaviour you’re seeking to change, and what’s really driving it

– Measuring change in behaviour, to ensure effectiveness and continued learning

This is where behavioural science comes in: it can help us with all of these things. Behavioural science applies the scientific method to understanding and modifying behaviour. It provides us with structure and rigour, all based on evidence and theory.

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Until recently, it has been the realm of academics; now it has become increasingly accessible and mainstream. Many have heard of nudge theory, made famous by a popular book and implemented by Cass Sunstein and David Halpern in the US and UK governments (respectively). Nudge theory uses knowledge of behavioural science to influence the population’s behaviour using small changes to their surrounding environment.

In 2013, Susan Michie, a world-renowned expert in the area, founded the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change. Since then, the centre has released a number of resources to support the use of behavioural science in behaviour change, designed to be accessible to all disciplines. One of these is the behaviour change wheel, a framework for developing behaviour change interventions and campaigns.

The behaviour change wheel was designed to bring together a number of theories of behavioural change, providing an accessible, all-encompassing framework that’s usable by anyone working in the area. It provides a step-by-step guide to changing behaviour, starting with understanding the drivers of the behaviour, through to recommended tried-and-tested techniques to target these drivers. By understanding this, campaigns have the power to be more effective, and evaluation can explore the mechanisms of the campaign’s impact.

By using behavioural science to create behaviour change campaigns, we can:

– Understand our audience fully, and therefore create something that targets actual issues for people, not just something we want to target or feel might be ‘interesting'.

– Utilise knowledge from decades of research into behaviour change.

– Evaluate not only the impact of campaigns, but also the mechanisms with which it has worked. This can help you to refine and improve your campaigns in the future.

Behavioural science certainly has a lot to learn from marketing: engagement with many behavioural science interventions is notoriously poor. Engagement with your campaign is extremely important for it to be effective, and this is where good marketing comes into its own. However, marketing can also learn a lot from behavioural science: by making campaigns rigorous, evidence based and measurable, we can help to ensure they’re actually effective in reaching their aims. If behavioural science and marketing can learn to work together, we may really have the potential to engender change in ways that have a commercial impact, but also in ways that improve all of our lives.

Dr Rosie Webster is a behavioural scientist with a PhD in Psychology and an associate of the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change. She is also a user experience researcher at digital health company ‘DrEd’ and is a member of The Playbook’s change network.


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