I first met Julian last year through the Marketing Agencies Action Group (MAAG). We’ve kept in touch and recently discovered that we have a shared passion for Behavioural Economics. I was more than a little jealous to learn that he worked with Richard Thaler. If you’ve not heard of Thaler, he helped to develop the UK’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) in 2010. 

Julian spent some time working at The Central Office of Information (COI), where he co-designed and ran a program for civil servants. His team was dedicated to bringing the latest thinking about effectiveness to government communications.

I wanted to speak to Julian to hear about the lessons that he learnt during his time at the COI and how these could help marketing and brand managers in the current climate.  

During your time at the COI, what sort of changes were you able to make to government communications?

This is a good question actually. One of the Government’s biggest strengths is that people work in a collegiate way. Everything that you’re doing, you do as a team. My team was working with a wider group of civil servants, trying to codify knowledge about behaviour change. We created models about how to affect wide-scale behaviour change. These models were not only easy to understand but were also honest, as they highlighted the true complexity and difficulty of achieving such change on big societal issues. 

The Government is always grappling with big, complex problems that are much more challenging than the issues most brands face. Governments are concerned with looking at stopping and starting problems of behaviour, like smoking cessation, obesity, tax returns etc whereas most brands simply want to increase their market share. 

Within Government circles, specifically the Department of Health and the COI, there was always a big connection to the academic community. When behavioral science came onto the scene, there was an enormous hunger for this sort of knowledge. We created a document called ‘Government Communications and Behaviour change,’ which provided a framework for thinking about how you achieve wide-scale behavior change. It explains why some wide-scale behavioural change does happen, like smoking cessation and why some change remains problematic like obesity. 

If you want to understand wide-scale behavioural change, you need to understand that there are four levers of influence:

  • Personal: knowledge, priming, tools, incentives (prices)
  • Social: norms among family and friends, taboos
  • Local: what is available/affordable where you are
  • Wider environment: discourse in the media and degree of consensus among opinion formers

If you think about why smoking cessation has been such a success, there has been a combination of the above factors that has resulted in wide scale behaviour change. 

Did you encounter any challenges in getting wider stakeholders to apply behavioural economic principles to communications?

There wasn’t much resistance to change within the Government as the field was championed by the likes of David Cameron.

I was surprised to see how slowly the principles of behaviour economics were adopted by the wider commercial world. When I was working for the COI I organised a talk by Richard Thaler for the COI’s internal clients, like the Department of Health. I booked a meeting room that held 100 people; however, it soon became apparent that I needed to book a meeting room to hold 500 people. There was a real interest in the book Nudge and a genuine attempt to grapple with how you tackle some of society’s biggest problems. The Government had spent millions over the years, trying and failing to encourage people to save for their pensions until we basically went for the ‘default options’ approach, which is advocated in Nudge. That changed everything. 

8-10 years ago, I developed some seminars about behavioural economics to take to commercial organisations. Fundamentally I was talking about effectiveness and about what really works, yet, there seemed to be a curious lack of appetite for it. Why is this? I’m not sure I completely know the answer to the question, but I think that it is partly due to legacy systems. A lot of us in marketing are locked into previous ways of doing things that we enjoy. Most commercial marketing departments enjoyed making nice TV adverts. In my experience, I felt that behavioural economics was widely viewed as an attack on traditional advertising and storytelling. This isn’t necessarily the case. I think there is a strong case in behavioural economics for what people call the ‘John Lewis model,’ where you make fabulously enjoyable emotional storytelling that psychologically primes people to respond.

However, I believe a more sophisticated view, which was embraced by the Government, is that it is not an either-or approach. You’ve got to integrate classic advertising thinking with design thinking to achieve widespread change. I feel that there is still a resistance to it in some commercial circles, as it requires you to think holistically about change, and not departmentally. 

If you take the levers of change model, that is effectively a model for integrating all forms of intervention, from PR to advertising to direct marketing. Behaviour science invites you to think in a holistic way about all different disciplines, but that is really difficult to do, especially if those disciplines sit within individual departments in large organisations.

Given the current climate, what behavioral economic principles do you think are most relevant to marketers today?

I feel that the brands that are winning today are the ones that are following the ‘ease’ principles identified in behavioural economics. This is quite a broad principle as it covers a number of things: is it easy to find, easy to use, easy to remember? 

We really don’t like to think too much. If you make something that is complicated, odds are that most people won’t interact with it. If you look at the organisation influencing the world today like Amazon, they have designed their entire operational model with user experience in mind. They have found a way of using behavioural data to design systems that are easy and intuitive to use. That’s why they’re winning. 

Be obsessive about ease and fluency

When I worked with Booking.com, I found it interesting that they wouldn’t adopt an idea that they felt bought any kind of friction into the e-commerce experience. Their whole obsession was a drive towards increasing the ease of use within e-commerce. This obsession has enabled them to become the world’s largest platforms for hotel bookings.

Social proof and social signalling

I think that social proofing is particularly pertinent now. This is something that the Government is trying to do with their ‘we’re all in it together’ messaging. They’re trying to propagate the idea that we’ve all got to do this together because we’re fighting a common threat. I think broadly speaking, people have accepted that. I think social proof has proved partially powerful for the Government right now. I feel that it won’t be long until masks are used as a form of visual signalling, which is really important in developing a sense of what a social norm is – it helps people understand that this is an issue widespread in society. 

Understand your customers needs and behaviour

There is a misunderstanding that people search for brands and products, when, in fact, they search for solutions to problems. Using this insight, when I worked at Google, we helped Unilever develop a content marketing strategy called ‘All things hair.’ The platform used search data from Google to better understand their audience, which helped them to create briefs for beauty bloggers to develop engaging content. The UK All things hair channel has 149k subscribers, and bloggers have uploaded over 350 videos to the platform. More importantly, Unilever has developed the platform further and created different language versions, which empowers local and regional marketing teams.  

All Things Hair from Razorfish on Vimeo.

What recommendations would you give to brand and marketing managers to help them ensure that their marketing and communications are as effective as they can be?

The short answer to this would be to read Phil Barden’s book Decoded. 

One of the book’s general principles is that we are unable to give an objective account of why we do things. A lot of our decisions are highly instinctive. Still, when you ask people why they did that, they’ll post rationalise their answer. 

Going back to my point about ‘not thinking as much as we think we think,’ in a supermarket we subconsciously scan supermarket aisles. In Barden’s book he explains that most of our 120° of vision is peripheral and blurry. Barden believes that this insight can partly explain why Tropicana’s 2009 rebrand failed so spectacularly. 

Tropicana paid $35 million to redesign and market their new upmarket orange juice packaging but went on to lose $20m in sales. Customers simply didn’t recognise the new packaging Tropicana, so defaulted to buying another brand of orange juice that they did recognise. 

Barden suggests that a simple way to test if your packaging/marketing will work is to blur images in PowerPoint and then show them quickly to someone unfamiliar with it. If they can recognise the brand, you’re safe; if not, best to go back to the drawing board. I’m not sure if Tropica conducted any qualitative research ahead of the rebrand. If they had, I suspect that people would have said they’d buy the new Tropicana. The packaging was nice and upmarket. There was nothing to dislike, but what people say they’ll do, and what they actually do, are two very different things. 

If you can, I’d recommend conducting live experiments to determine what will or won’t work in your market. Luckily today, this can be done on a relatively low-cost basis. In the 80’s when I worked for Unilever, we conducted what we called ‘van tests’ where we’d make a product and put it into a real retail environment. Doing this allowed Unilever to see what people really do. This was very expensive, but it almost certainly saved them money in the long term as they avoided making the kind of mistakes Tropicana made. 

The environment marketing professionals will be operating in over the next few years is going to be tough. Most of us will be working in organisations where we will be under huge pressure to preserve cash – it is going to be difficult to justify your case. It makes it much easier to make your case if you design a live experiment with measurable results that you can present to senior stakeholders. 

About Julian Sanders

The Brand Blog. Julian SaundersJulian Saunders is a strategist, trainer and writer who has had three careers.

In advertising, he was Planning Director at Ogilvy, Head of Strategy at McCann-Erickson and CEO of red cell advertising, a WPP agency dedicated to challenger thinking.

He took a sabbatical in 2003/4 to edit a textbook for The Account Planning Group on the impact of digital technology called “The Communications Challenge.”

Then he focussed on design thinking and the application of Behavioural psychology to behaviour change. He was Non-executive Planning Director of Good Technology (GT), ran The Big Thinkers program for the UK government (COI) and joined an Innovation team at Google (The Zoo).

He teaches courses for strategists and brand owners in the UK and internationally. He publishes regularly and blogs at www.joinedupthink.com 

Further reading
  • Mindspace – Influencing behaviour through public policy
  • Phil Barden – How science can help marketers become more effective
  • Niklas Göke – The Worst Rebrand in the History of Orange Juice
  • Alex Muñoz – What we learned onboarding 2 million home and apartment owners on Booking.com

In 2010 the Government published a report called ‘Mindspace’ which explored how behavioral economics can be used to influence behaviour change through policy. The main principles to drive behaviour change include:

  • Messenger: we are heavily influenced by who communicated information
  • Incentives: our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses
  • Norms: we are strongly influenced by what others do
  • Defaults: we ‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options
  • Salience: our attention is drawn to what is novel and what seems relevant to us
  • Priming: our cats are often influenced by subconscious cues 
  • Affect: our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
  • Commitments: we seek to be consistent with our public promises and reciprocate acts
  • Ego: we seek to be consistent with our public promises and reciprocate acts

If you’d like to contribute to The Brand Blog please get in touch.

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