How Popular Brands Can Use Behavioral Science to Influence Consumer Habits
This article has been written in collaboration with Silvia Cottone - you can find more of her work at Heurística
Everyone agrees that the year 2020 has been a year of big changes. The novel coronavirus pandemic has taken the world by storm and has had humankind rethink a lot of what traditionally constituted everyday life, including aspects ranging from our work culture to how we go on weekends outings. This article highlights the crucial role hat popular brands can play in nudging healthier habits amongst the populace. The importance of applying behavioral science for restricting the spread of the virus has not changed, rather it has increased in several countries. Brands can make use of the key insights offered by professionals in this field to add a new element in their relationship with their clients.
The pre- and post-lockdown phases consist of several habit changes: the lockdown forced people to change their habits or create new ones (such as training at home, remote working, etc.). By the time this pandemic tides over, it is critical that the public adapts to new hygiene practices as the norm in order to curb the spread of the contagion. Especially in the developing countries, where the cases keep on increasing every day, the activation plans implemented by some governments are adopting a ‘transactional’ approach. Every month, a new phase is introduced in the unlocking process, fostering gradual changes in the social and economic environment (i.e. shops and restaurants reopening, national flights available). Some countries more than others try to shift from one phase to another introducing protocols that ensure the safety of consumers.
We see the same shift in Perú, where July has been one such ‘transaction month’, meaning that although in some regions the lockdown has been lifted; people are learning to live the new normal, meaning that citizens continue wearing masks, maintaining social distancing; and activities can’t reopen until the sanitary protocol is approved. This transactional phase might help reduce the risk of a second wave as people will continue to follow the preventive measures imposed by the government since the very beginning of the quarantine. For example, the Peruvian government has allowed the re-initiation of national flights only if specific requirements are met (i.e. destinations must not be subject to a focused quarantine, passengers must make use of masks and face-shields, etc.).
In such a scenario, as Covid-19 lockdowns lift, the population is required to build and maintain new habits that include physical distancing, wearing masks and promoting hand and face hygiene. This strongly influences consumer behavior, as these preventive measures serve to be ‘hassle factors’ and often discourage people from making purchases. Indeed, consumers have had to experience long periods of time in the absence of retails of goods that are not primarily necessities. For example, people couldn’t buy clothes or technology during the lockdown. Moreover, they had to shift from offline to online purchasing. All of this greatly reduces the volume of consumer demand that once prevailed.
For companies, this can be a challenge as they now have to reinvent their market reach to increase the purchase of specific goods. What can companies do in this case? Can they leverage the covid-19 pandemic to not only benefit their profits but also their consumers? Initiatives on their part, to help consumers fight the virus and encourage better mental health, can be one solution to deeper connect clients and brands: it definitely helps build long-term trust in the brand. How? Behavioral Science is a discipline that aims at understanding the factors that influence people’s decision making in order to change their behaviors in a positive and (hopefully) long-lasting way.
Broadly speaking, there are two angles from which we can think of behavioural change. First, by influencing what individuals consciously think about based on the information available (known as 'System 2' thinking). Secondly, by focusing on how we can influence the automatic judgments that people make (or 'System 1' thinking), by changing the context within which they take action. Companies very often focus on designing communication campaigns that try to give as much information as possible to motivate people to adopt the desired behavior. However, other factors such as capability and opportunity can also encourage people in adopting new habit patterns. Evidence in psychology and behavioral economics shows that culture and environment play a significant role in how behavior can be changed and sustained. This is particularly the case in India, where we know that human behaviour intersects with considerations of diverse cultural beliefs, ethnic fragmentation, and social norms.
Several businesses are now thinking of starting initiatives to incentivise in developing countries to adopt and maintain the new habits that come with this so-called ‘new normal’. They can surely guide their consumers through the uncertainty about life, livelihood, and the future. But they have to realise that designing behavioral change needs to consider existing attitudes and perceptions toward healthy behavior. By implementing behavioral insights, companies can leverage the brand trust people have developed, in order to stimulate their unconscious decision making with regards to the adoption of preventing certain modes of behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic to reduce the spread of the virus and potential health issues. There is no purely absolute or objective reality; the mind updates the meaning of things (for example, about what is positive or negative, desirable or not), based on the frame of reference or approach in which they are presented. Perception is reality, and it can be managed with insights from Behavioral Sciences.
For example, a Peruvian company has thought about applying behavioral science to face the challenge of developing initiatives that promote preventive behaviors to avoid the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (in a post-quarantine setting), with a special focus on vulnerable sectors of the population. If this initiative is seen as positive, it might influence the perception of the brand in the long term, too. One way in which consumer brands can influence healthy behaviour during this time is by creating new products. It is crucially important for us all to wash our hands with soap and water for at least thirty seconds every now and then in order to reduce the risk of contracting Covid-19. It is not only important to wash your hands, but to do it well. Although the importance of washing hands for a minimum of 20 seconds has been widely communicated, it must be recognized that it is difficult to remember. And if we remember it, it's hard to feel like or estimate time without a watch on hand. One of the main barriers to handwashing is the cognitive ability barrier: always keep in mind the recommended time (e.g., 30 seconds), and how long it really is 30 seconds. To overcome it, you can offer information and tactics such as singing "Happy Birthday" twice in a row to finish. One way around this is by developing a soap that dissolves in thirty seconds, for instance. This soap provides a strategy that eliminates the responsibility of the user in remembering and putting the song idea into practice, and also incentives proper hygiene, since this is simple, playful and memorable, which serves to be a motivation facilitator.
In line with system 1 thinking, companies can help change the context in which consumers are faced with decisions. In Bristol for example, heart-shaped signs were painted on the floor of a park to help demarcate physical distancing. Unlike the more frequent circular markings, these heart-shaped markings can make distancing feel like an intimate and therefore acceptable (even, desirable) circumstance. Thus new kinds of brands can be associated with a special space, be it a picnic in the park, romantic date or a place to be close to your trusted people.
In countries like India, popular consumer goods brands have played a major role in shaping society and continue to do so. Vast numbers of Indian’s are employed in a handful of popular brands such as Anand Milk Union Limited (AMUL), a popular dairy brand; Brittania, a popular foodstuff’s manufacturer etc. Many of these companies run media campaigns and other outreach programs in the form of evocative comic strips, blurbs and clever sloganeering that can nudge the public in adopting the practices promoted by this suggestive advertising.
It is thus made evident that corporations and the brands they espouse can serve to play a significant role in steering responsible consumer behaviour with regards to hygiene and other practices during the pandemic. Corporate work and outreach culture have historically played a role in shaping the way individuals across nations perceive the status quo. Maybe now is the time for popular brands to use their might in helping to create a well-articulated picture of what the new normal should be like; and in helping people truly accept it as such.
By - Silvia Cottone Graphic by - Gayathri nair