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Behavioural Change

Aug 12, 2021 | POINTS OF VIEW

Behaviour change approach

behaviour change approach

The need for behavioural change is everywhere. So why is it still so misunderstood by brands?

1977. A year of strong memories for me. Joining in the street party celebrations for the Silver Jubilee. Feeling the heartache of millions at the news of Elvis’ death. Marvelling at the power of the Force in a refurbished Odeon Leicester Square. Wondering at who could possibly have helped put Mull of Kin bleeding-tyre at the top of the charts for twelve weeks.

Little did I know, that around the same time as Travolta’s Tony Manero was creating a dance fever around the world, a small but significant-to-my-career event, was taking place at the University of Rhode Island.

It was an event which has arguably helped to change more people’s lives around the world than any other.

The Transtheoretical Model of Behavioural Change by James O Prochaska, Carlo DiClemente and colleagues was published.

It was developed by studying smokers who could quit of their own accord and those who needed help. To anyone who has attempted and failed to give up, it would not come as any great surprise to learn that the study determined that people quit smoking when they were ready to do so. The model, therefore, focuses on how to influence decision-making and it was based on the assumption that, generally, people don’t change their behaviours that quickly or decisively.

Six stages of behavioural change were identified with an individual having to go through each stage before entering the next. Initially designed for public health, it became the preeminent model of behavioural change for governments, international corporations and NGOs across the world. And if you wanted to win one of the big Government accounts during the Blair years, you discounted learning it at your peril.

It was used to influence public behaviour across a wide range of issues from tackling anti-social behaviour and preventing teenage pregnancy to reducing food waste. All of them, and many more, are based on the Prochaska model.

Like the majority of models, it had its limitations. But it still provided a guiding light on the science of change and became a model we could successfully adapt to brands. After all, in nearly three decades of working with brands, I’ve yet to work with one that didn’t want change.

All brands seek change. On one level or another.

An increase in awareness. Changing brand perceptions. A change in how the CEO is perceived. Positively changing employee’s welfare. Improving people’s lives. Growing sales and market share. You name it, it’s all about change.

Care had to be taken not to apply the model dogmatically. Sectors have their own nuances. But work through those intricacies and you begin to find a way of seeing a traditional funnel differently. You begin to consider what it actually takes to influence awareness to consideration, consideration to adoption and to then loyalty. Change the attitudes, change the behaviour.

So why does the word ‘change’ rarely feature in a brief? And why do clients rarely see responses built from change models? In agency land we tend to have this belief that if the creative is good enough, everything will be ok. “Behaviour change? Sure, we can do that”. “Begin a movement? Absolutely – it’s easy with our idea”. But it doesn’t work like that.

Delivering change is a long-term goal.

The majority of brand campaigns begin and end with awareness. If their strategy is on point and they have the budget to effectively deliver a cracking creative they have a chance of breaking through. But most journeys require a brand to steal an audience from somewhere else.

It’s rare for a product to create a new category. And it’s even rarer for a product to be unique. It’s why so many brands turn to the drug that is price promotions and then regret it forever. Price promotions don’t deliver meaningful change, they just dig away at profit margins until there is no margin.

Encouraging people to switch, is a science. Not too dissimilar to giving up the dreaded weed. Sure, Prochaska is no longer flavour of the month but there are other models which can be adapted and used to influence public behaviour.

We no longer need to think that a business can change employee’s behaviours by just sticking posters up in a lift. Or that a brand can increase market share by just buying digital advertising. Or that we can cut down on obesity by handing out public health leaflets.

 Where does the behavioural change journey begin?

In the beginning, was the word, and the word was “research”. Primary research. Backed-up and informed by secondary research. Businesses with access to the right kind of insight invariably beat those that don’t. Most businesses shy away from research because they believe they know the customer better than anyone. But they end up falling into the trap of creating anodyne insights and bland customer portraits which ultimately sets them up for failure.

Invest in good quality, robust research. It should encourage you and make you feel uncomfortable at the same time. It should inform the direction of travel and reveal change triggers.

Research informs the message

The message is everything is in change. Spend too little time on the message and chances are you’ll miss the target. How do you get the right message? A technique I picked up years ago from a great CMO from Nestlé, was to consider what you want your audience to think, feel and do. If you arrive at the answer too quickly, you probably haven’t thought it through enough. Ideally, you will also stress test it with audiences.

Consider what people currently think, feel and do and articulate the change you would like to deliver.

Here’s an example of what it might look like from Dove and their Real Beauty Campaign.

  • Think: All women are beautiful, regardless of age, race, colour, creed and sexual orientation.
  • Feel: I feel comfortable in my own skin
  • Do: Free myself from self-doubt and embrace my own, real beauty.


Whichever model you use, the ability to move between phases is key. As is the speed of evolution. Changing public behaviour or the behaviour of your target audience is complex. It’s why most brands give up. But you shouldn’t, as the rewards can be life-changing. For you, your business and for your audience.

If you are looking for a PR agency that can help deliver behaviour change, then get in touch with Sentient and find out how we can help you.

+44 7730 711923 

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