Is real behaviour change beyond the remit of marketing?

In this guest post Amelia Moulis argues marketers should be pushing companies to look at their structures to make customer behaviour change more effective.

When you are trying to change patterns of behaviour, should you be trying to change the culture and attitudes that can warrant behaviours, or trying to change the structures of design that can instruct behaviours?amelia-moulis-headshot

This question came to me while I was facilitating a workshop recently, challenged with improving mental health outcomes for specific groups of people. It was a complex challenge and it raised complex questions about the role of marketing and communications in changing behaviour.

You don’t have to be Einstein to appreciate that behaviour is influenced by a mosaic of visible and invisible forces. Is it nature or nurture? Head or heart? Peer pressure or independent will?

At a base level, as communications professionals, we want to influence a person to ‘do something’ through ‘thinking something’. It is Inception in action, and we always strive to make it as easy as possible for that person to adopt the particular behaviour or way of thinking that we want to achieve.Training Neuroscience Development

This, of course, presents a challenge. How can you change a person’s behaviour when the forces that change behaviour are so complex to begin with?

Achieving a final outcome requires us to think about the entire system that propels or inhibits behaviour change in a specific context.

There are multiple university courses and theory books that talk about this – indeed, most industry media outlets refer to behaviour change each and every day – but it’s when we get down to the structural dictators of behaviour that communications is slowly replaced by management consultancy.

In our industry at the moment, this is often taken for granted: communicators change thoughts and opinions to make way for the next step, where the programs and rules can be redesigned by ‘those in charge’.

But, in many ways, communicators are selling themselves short by not having input into the final step, leaving management teams to take control without the detailed insight and input that communicators gain throughout their journey.

The process of effective marketing

The process of effective marketing requires a nuanced understanding of the factors influencing individuals within their specific context. Why are these people behaving in certain ways, and not in the ways that will most benefit the product or service we’re marketing?

Starting with this question, marketers and communicators have to explore multiple levels of context and influence: the cultural or societal psyche, the day-to-day environment, the peers and leaders setting examples, the quirks of the individual…

As such, we come to understand what ties audiences together and what sets them apart. We understand why they want to behave the way they do and then try to shift this through appeals to underlying desires and needs.

In systems thinking, we operate in the ‘shadow system’, where all the non-rational influences reside; the hopes and ambitions, the fears and joys, the often-intangibles. This is the heartland for marketing, where needs and wants reign supreme. But if we really want to change patterns of behaviour, we have to move beyond the cultural and attitudinal, and into the structures of design that can dictate behaviours.Vector idea sketch background with elements drawn with pen sketchs

Thinking structurally

Structures are a kind of behaviour themselves, a product of humans putting their heads together and designing something for use by other humans. As such, structures can be thought of as ‘programs’ for behaviour: they are the legitimate, official or consciously-designed elements, the rational. Think of laws and policies: you must get a license before you can drive. Structures create order.

When it comes to influencing behaviour, structures are instruction manuals. They’re the work rosters and parental leave policies, the train timetable and the rate for overtime, the calendars and constitutions. These structures all sanction particular patterns of behaviour.

So what happens when structures need to change for behaviour to change? What role do communicators have?

After seeing and understanding the complex influences on society, environments, peers and individuals, communicators aren’t always given a seat at the table for this final step of behaviour change.

Where communications edges into management consultancy, there’s the potential for magic, as insights become action and new norms are validated. But if you’re not consulted about structural change, the goal to truly change behaviour is compromised.

This is also the territory where social impact consultancy can truly shine. The challenges that our society faces today are incredibly complex and are composed of multiple systems, structures and influences.

To effectively create patterns of behaviour that make a tangible difference to society, a multi-disciplinary approach is required. This also requires seeing multi-disciplinary professionals for their unique advantage: holistic, human-centred skills that identify abstract interactions between multiple systems.

As holistic, tactical thinkers, marketers can realise the change they’re trying to create by edging beyond their current remit, helping clients and management professionals to understand the context of their audience in full technicolour, and changing structures to best fit the humans at the heart of it all.

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which the flower grows, not the flower.”

Amelia Moulis is an account manager at Ellis Jones

The MSIX conference – Marketing Science Ideas Exchange – returns on November 24 looking at different aspects of behaviour change and influence. To see the program and get tickets click here.



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