How can brands change in 2019? By not mentioning it

Extinction Rebellion is gaining mass appeal because it is a call to defend something everyone already believes in - survival / Joël de Vriend

Getting my 93-year-old grandma, who I adore, to change her perspective on gay parenthood wasn't easy. As we washed up teacups, I explained how times were changing and things were different now. No luck. I tried a different tact. I talked about my personal yearning to one day be a parent with my partner Simon, and that I felt it was everybody’s right to be a parent, regardless of their orientation, or biological makeup.

This struck a chord.

My grandmother was one of the first women in her small Jewish community in Newcastle to go through the adoption process, being unable to have children with her husband. The right to be a parent, despite social norms, is embedded in her lived experience. Thinking about gay parenthood from this perspective was something she could get behind. Crucially, it was something she already believed in.

I realised that I had talked her 'round by employing Dr Robert Cialdini’s ‘consistency and commitment’ principle, one of the foundations of behaviour change theory. The theory goes that we’re more likely to take an action if it is some way connected to something we have said, done, or believed in before.

The most extreme example of this is how American soldiers were turned into collaborators during the Korean war.

Prisoners were asked to write things down they didn’t mind admitting as true – from: 'The United States is not perfect' to: 'In a communist country, unemployment is not a problem'.

Slowly they were then asked to write more subversive statements and essays in line with what they had already said. These were broadcast on POW camp radios and to American Forces in South Korea. In many cases these soldiers would go on to become extensive collaborators, altering their self-image and beliefs to be consistent with what they had written and had inadvertently broadcasted.

What brands stand to learn, both from Cialdini and my grandmother, is that the most powerful way to get people to change is to position change as something they already believe in.

We are seeing this approach in the most monumental societal change campaigns of our times, from the Extinction Rebellion movement in London to the overused Brexit slogan 'Take Back Control' to Donald Trump's infamous call to 'Make America Great Again'.

Trump didn’t promise a new era of greatness. He poked at inconsistency. 'You were great,' he implicitly told the crowd. His positioned his leadership as one that merely returned to greatness, rather than seeking it out in a different way.

Pro-Brexiteer Nigel Farage didn’t tell the nation that he was going to create a novel independent positioning. His message? 'You gave up the control you had previously held dear. All you have to do it take it back, and bring your actions back in line with how your previous behaviour and feelings'.

We have recently seen protests all over London for Extinction Rebellion. Facing arrests are not just hardcore activists but also first-time protestors. At the heart of Extinction Rebellion is that same lure of consistency, but taken to the extreme. The movement is gaining mass appeal because it is a call to defend something everyone already believes in at their human core – survival.

To stay relevant to society, and drive sustainable growth, businesses across multiple industries are facing the challenge of change.

It might be through tackling the environmental impact of their products, or adopting new technology, or better representing diverse society in their output and in their boardrooms.

To make these changes happen, the ‘consistency and commitment’ principle can be a good place to start, in three key ways:

1) Define your commitment principle

Marketers need to define something they already authentically believe in that can underpin their messages during a time of change.

For The British Army, recruitment had to change to reflect the different needs and makeup of young people today.

As such, The Army’s recent 'This Is Belonging'recruitment campaign spoke to its audience in a new way, but was ultimately underpinned by the age-old army values of camaraderie and strong bonds.

2) Use language and behaviours you’re already committed to

Just because you’re doing something different, it doesn’t mean you should change how you speak and act as a brand.

During the World Cup, PaddyPower engaged LGBTQ audiences in a way that was consistent to its well-known mischievous behaviour – it turned the Russian team into LGBTQ fundraisers by donating to LGBTQ causes for every goal they scored.

3) Make it clear you’ll keep to your commitment

Nobody wants to get behind something that won’t last.

When Ikea stopped serving and selling single-use plastic straws across its UK and Ireland stores, restaurants and bistros last October, it immortalised its ‘Last Straw’ in an installation at the Design Museum in London – an inescapable sign of permanence.

In a world that needs great change, we must understand what makes change acceptable to people, and what puts them off.

Talking about change might feel right, but it may not always help businesses get to where they want to be.

None of this is new theory, it’s an old principle applied to new and emerging trends. Which is probably exactly why it’s working.

Matthew Waksman is planning director at Karmarama

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