A Quick Guide to Applying Behavioural Science without the BS

A Quick Guide to Applying Behavioural Science without the BS

Image credit: Ross Sneddon via Unsplash

For most of this century, nudge theory – an arm of behavioural science that puts surroundings and suggestion at the heart of influencing decision-making – has been conspicuously applied to almost every area of life. From health care and road safety, to supermarket displays and the urinals at Schiphol Airport, you (literally) can’t miss it.

In the past couple of years, however, behavioural science’s reputation has taken a bit of a battering. 

Who gets to decide what a ‘better’ decision is? Ask any fan of a lower league football club why on earth they willingly endure an expensive, four-hour round trip only to see their team get thrashed by Accrington Stanley (who are they?) for example, and they’ll probably tell you to shove your claim of “irrational behaviour” where the sun don’t shine. And the less said about government interventions like ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ the better.

You see, for behavioural science in general – and nudge specifically – to be effective over time it needs to be both truthful and helpful. Anything less and trust is eroded. Which is an issue that resides right at the heart of its current image problem. As the proverb goes: ‘fool me once, shame on you… fool me twice, shame on me.’ But the idea that in 2024 we’re somehow ‘post-nudge’ – particularly when it comes to brands – isn’t borne out by what people actually think.

Trust in business and brands is at an all time high.

In fact, according to the past couple of Edelman Trust Barometers, brands are far more trusted than traditional institutions. Business has a remarkable 54-point lead over governments when it comes to perceived competence and is 30 points ahead on ethics*. Moreover, 63% think that establishment leaders can’t be trusted to tell us the truth, while brands are considered to be the most trustworthy to integrate innovation into society (especially when vetted by scientists)**. Staggering stuff.

The implications for brand communications are profound. Alex Batchelor, former COO of System 1 Group: “There is old school brand building and there is 21st century brand building driven by the behavioural sciences and they’re very different… and you need to do things differently to get the benefit (of the latter).” Clearly, brands have a fantastic opportunity – a responsibility, even – to bring nudge theory even more front and centre of what they do. Thus making their communications more effective by helping people help themselves and, by extension, society as a whole.

The question is: HOW should nudge be applied by brands?

Anything that is too slow, complicated or hits the bottom line is going to be a bit of a non-starter, especially right now. The answer, unsurprisingly, can be found in behavioural science itself.

One of the big barriers to using eminently sensible and constructive ideas like nudge theory, is that it is usually perceived as a tool – a series of methodologies used occasionally to tweak an idea here, or ratchet up an outcome there. This can make it seem onerous and adding Friction to the creative process – a bit of no-no when we consider the so-called Transparent Nudges***.

Rather, by Framing (a Non-Transparent Nudge***) it as a lens through which to view human behaviour in general, nudge becomes a context for better understanding trigger points and communication opportunities. Like putting on a VR headset that displays the likely actions of the people around you before they happen.

Next, it’s helpful to Simplify the Message (another Transparent Nudge), by identifying the brand development spaces that would contribute most to its gaze. These should address the main tenets of nudge theory: building trust, decision-making, desired action and enhanced experience.

It’s in this spirit that we bring you the three action areas we focus on most here at The Creative Lab…

1. Be intimate with your audience

Understanding your target audience, their values and the space in which they live (mental and physical) is fundamental to effective nudging. And we’re not talking bland demographics, we mean really finding out what makes them tick. Talk to them, live in their world, walk in their shoes, and identify their preferences, behaviours, and pain points.

2. Be natural and focused with your messaging

Nudges work best when they are subtle and non-intrusive, and have the outcome in mind. Consider the suite of nudges available (see below) and map them carefully against the objectives of the brief you’re working on. Then you can apply the simplest and most effective – but potentially least obvious – solution. For example, when a US cinema chain wanted movie goers to buy more popcorn, their solution wasn’t to cut the price of the biggest of the two available sizes, it was to introduce a ‘decoy’: a smartly priced, intermediate size.

3. Be prepared to test and iterate your communications at pace

Like most examples of great brand communication campaigns, implementing nudge is an ongoing process, with checks, balances, nips, tucks and tweaks all part of the fun. To do this well, the following three pillars are essential;

  • You understand your desired outcomes and the range of creative options to get you there.
  • You have a simple, dynamic measurement methodology in place. For this, we use our Gap Analysis tool (read about it here)
  • You are able to target and test different audiences and messages quickly in search of the best outcomes and ROI. We do this with the help of an AI media tool (read about it here)  

In summary…

So, as the marketing landscape continues to fragment and automate, embedding the power of nudge into the day-to-day of brand building and communications development will undoubtedly offer an important strategic leg-up. Particularly for those brands who want to build ever more effective and trusted relationships with their audiences and the world around them.

Say no more!

Five key outtakes…

  • Despite its apparent omnipotence, nudge theory – and behavioural science in general – has suffered a hit to its image in the past few years.
  • However, far from being in a post-nudge world, it has much to offer trusted brands in helping bottom lines, people and societies.
  • By re-framing nudge as a lens rather than a tool, brands and agencies can make it a part of their day-to-day understanding of human behaviour.
  • Key to success is to identify the brand and comms development areas that will most contribute to effective nudging and be great at those.
  • Our focus at The Creative Lab is a) be intimate with your audience, b) be natural and focused with your messaging, and c) be prepared to test and iterate your comms at pace.

** Edelman Trust Barometer, 2024

*** ‘An overview of the various types of nudges’, MembershipInnovation.com, March 2023

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