You don’t have to change minds to change behaviour

In this guest post, Paul Fishlock explains why behavioural science is not the enemy of creativity – it’s a springboard to it.

Science knows more about behaviour than marketing ever uses. In itself this is hardly surprising. It’s the chasm between them that’s cause for concern.

Much as we all love clever campaigns, we’re not in the entertainment business we’re in the influence business. We’re paid to get people to pick product X over product Y, use this service more or do this unhealthy behaviour less. Remember?

You’d think we’d be drawn to evidence-based ways to be better at it like TV producers to lunch – but we’re not. For most, the credible, proven fields of decision science barely get a hearing at the water cooler. In the foreword to a new book out this month, behavioural economics’ most eloquent apostle, Rory Sutherland, (vice chairman of Ogilvy UK) notes “The record of the marketing services community to what seems to be a Copernican revolution in the behavioural sciences has so far been notable by its absence”.

decoded coverThe book is ‘Decoded’ by Phil Barden and I was recently invited to review a manuscript of it. Barden is not an academic but a client-side marketer with 25 years at the likes of Unilever, Diageo and T-Mobile. In ‘Decoded’ he sets out to build the most comprehensive bridge yet between decision science and the day-to-day business of marketing.

The work of Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist, Daniel Kahneman is a recurring theme. Evolution has given our brains two systems for decision-making: a lightening fast, implicit, effortless ‘autopilot’ and a slow, explicit, effortful ‘pilot’. The autopilot makes as many decisions as possible as it’s both faster and uses less energy (which we may need later to escape a sabre tooth tiger).

The compelling argument that up to 90% of our behaviour is decided by our autopilot without conscious thought ever being aware of it is an unexploded bomb in the foundations of conventional marketing. Forget everything you know; you don’t have to change minds to change behaviour.

Scans of a brain reacting to a strong brand and a weak brand show one lighting up like a Christmas tree and the other causing hardly any activity at all. The epiphany is that it’s the strong brand that makes you think less, as it’s already understood so is valued more highly than the brand that demands energy to evaluate it.

Seasoned ad folk may feel they practice some of this already. They’re right. The byline for ‘Decoded’ could easily have been Great advertising instinct explained. We instinctively use things like social proof – Australia’s favourite shampoo – and scarcity value – hurry while stocks last. But understanding the behavioural principles that explain why some ideas just feel right can only make your instincts better.

Decision science also unlocks tiny interventions you can aim at the autopilot that cost little or nothing but yield spectacular results. An ad for a cake with the fork on the right is 20% more effective than the identical ad with the fork on the left. Why? Because most people are right-handed so most brains find it easier to process a fork on the right and value that cake more highly (it’s called ‘cortical relief’). How much extra budget would you otherwise have to spend to increase effectiveness by 20%?

Like most creative people, I didn’t get into advertising for the love of science but, by unpacking famous Cadbury, Lynx and T-Mobile campaigns, ‘Decoded’ shows understanding behaviour is not the enemy of creativity but a springboard to it. Creatives more than anyone need to embrace it – not make it planning or research’s responsibility or assume a new video on YouTube renders the hardwiring of our
brains irrelevant.

Advertising will never be a science but it’s more science than most working in it realise.

Paul Fishlock is principal of Sydney agency, Behaviour Change Partners


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.