A version of this blog first appeared in the pages of B2B Marketing, posted online here. This is the first in a regular, quarterly series linking psychology and marketing, flying under the banner of I’m Still Thinking. Thanks for the platform, which I’m sharing with two other marketing psychs. Details to follow.
Marketing communications is dysfunctional.
For a family of disciplines whose very purpose is to change what people think and do, too few practitioners ever stop and think how to apply the principles of psychology to their day-to-day work.
You know psychology. The study of, erm, human motivation and behaviour.
Though many communicators of every stripe and function studied this super-popular subject to first degree level and beyond, they forget all their Pavlov, Skinner and Seligman the moment they stop studying. It slips their mind that Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, invented PR with his very readable book(let), Propaganda, first published in 1928.
It’s as if entering agency life – with its operant conditioning signifiers the Nespresso machine, bonuses, and free sushi on a Friday – cuts off access to a wealth of intelligence and understanding that would make their work demonstrably better.
This is a pity. More than that, this psychological black spot prevents marcomms from being taken seriously in the C-suite because it renders it more of an art than a science.
This needs to change.
Looking for inspiration in behavioural psychology helps whether you want people to adopt a new habit (Apple’s force touch), to enter into a new category for the first time (smart watches), to do more of something (exercise), to do less of something (eat salt), or stop doing something altogether (smoke).
So let’s just scratch the surface of behavioural psychology and see what a quick refresher course can tell us about three important roles communication plays in behaviour change. Let’s consider how Lifebuoy has used communication in complementary ways to promote hand-washing among newly-urbanised, aspirational consumers in the developing world.
1. It provides information
Washing your hands after going to the loo and before eating reduces the risk of diarrhoea.
2. It provides motivation
Kids who wash their hands regularly are sick less often, have better attendance at school, get better exam results, go on to university, become doctors and lawyers.
3. It provides behavioural skills
Information-rich roadshows demonstrating the hidden threat of bacteria and how washing with antibacterial soap neutralises this threat.
Unilever communicates according to a paradigm drawn from our understanding of how we learn, how we build associations, and what we need to do in order to adopt new habits. What’s more, it uses reward not punishment cues to reinforce new behaviours even though the ultimate benefits are long-term (achievement among generation next) not short-term (less sickness). Attention, parents and others! Punishment really doesn’t help people learn positive new behaviours.
What’s more there are short-term benefits too, and these allow long term benefits to stay in focus. If kids are sick less often, they suffer less. Parents suffer less, too. Not just in seeing their children well, at school and thriving. They’ll have to take less time off work – time they can ill-afford – and they’ll prosper as a result. And all this from a little bar of red soap!
The rise of behavioural economics has helped communications to fall in love with psychology again, too. Observe the ascent of Freakonomics, Richard Thaler’s nudge theory and Number 10’s nudge unit, and accessible gurus like Rory Sutherland, who leads Ogilvy Change.
It’s time that the ranks of not-so-hidden persuaders tuned into what psychology teaches us all over again. They’ll do demonstrably more impactful work, delivering communications with its intended impact. Changing what people think and do.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.