I had an interesting conversation with my dentist the other day. We were discussing how to change habits that impact dental hygiene and she told me how she often recommends her patients to see a hypnotherapist. “She’s really good…it always works. The only thing is you have to want to change”.

Apart from realising that this was one of the greatest disclaimers yet invented for failing to deliver a promised result, the conversation also reminded me that this is indeed one of the great truths of changing behaviour – you can make changing behaviour easy, but it will have only limited impact if you don't also successfully increase people’s motivation to change.

Behaviour Change theories have been making a splash in the world of marketing for quite some time. At The Forge we are passionate believers in this perspective – not just because it unlocks a narrow sub-set of specific behavioural challenges, but because changing people’s behaviour is the ultimate goal of all marketing activities. 

There are many and varied models of Behaviour Change. We think that it ultimately boils down to the balance of two key elements that need to come together for behaviour change to happen: Motivation and Ability.

We find it fascinating to apply this logic to todays big successes. If we interrogate the big sweeping changes of the last few years (from direct to consumer successes like Dollar Shave Club, through the boom in recipe boxes, to the rise of voice assistants) are they winning because they are changing Ability, Motivation or both?

This perspective also serves to highlight where brands and businesses so often go wrong in their quest for change…by focusing on how they can improve consumer Ability (i.e. make the thing easier to do) rather than on how they can increase consumer Motivation (i.e. make the thing more desirable).

At The Forge we’ve seen this come to life across a number of the categories that we have worked on recently.

When we explored the category of home decorating we found that almost every single manufacturer of paint was focused on talking about the WHAT (i.e. choosing the perfect colour) and the HOW (i.e. how you go about applying that colour to the surfaces in your home). And they weren’t just talking about these things…innovation tended to be focused here as well…apps to help you choose the colour you want, new and improved brushers and roller systems that would help you get the stuff on the walls easier, faster and with less mess.  


What pretty much all of these manufacturers were missing was the importance of building the motivation to decorate, the importance of giving people a clear reason WHY. Given the contraction in real incomes suffered by many UK households decorating competes with a host of other uses for disposable income, many of which tell a much clearer story of their benefits (think Thomson’s 2013 ‘Simon the Ogre’ ad…where a holiday turns Simon from an ogre back to a human being). In short, the decorating world was failing to tell people how it would make their lives better.

We have also seen this phenomena in the world of Personal Savings.

A 2015 study by Deloitte estimates that the annual savings gap per person, on average, will increase from £8,000 to £10,000 between 2015 and 2050, ultimately resulting in a savings gap of £350 billion by 2050.

But again, the brands and businesses in this sector have tended to focus on making saving & investing easier and more accessible, while neglecting the question of motivation. Even cutting-edge Apps like Squirrel and Nutmeg have erred towards delivering simplicity rather than seeking to encourage and catalyse the behaviour in question. This is particularly pertinent in a world where saving has become less and less rewarding (in terms of interest rates), meaning that people need to be truly convinced that saving is the ‘right’ thing to do.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that brands and businesses often fall into this trap. Their defining context is competitive so they want to deliver new, unique and ownable ways of experiencing their products and services. They seek to change behaviour by overcoming the barriers they see in sharpest relief. But usually this means limiting themselves in their view of the ‘available’ landscape for change. It tends to mean thinking about the things that will make life easier for those already in the category because those people are in the foreground, rather than seeing the bigger opportunity just over the brow of the hill – those who aren’t in the category yet. As we noted in our recent blog ‘Stop creating innovation that doesn’t change behaviour’ this all too often means designing solutions for problems that don’t actually exist.

Being brave enough to take the ‘category’ rather than the ‘brand’ point of view can unlock huge gains and help to recruit a wave of new users to the category, from which all brands can benefit (though usually the biggest brands benefit more). The growth of the bottled water category is a case in point. Brands in the category came together to form the Natural Hydration Council, “a not for profit bottled water association dedicated to communicating the facts around healthy hydration”. Publicising the data and opinions of experts from a range of sectors (dieticians, nutritionists, exercise gurus, sports scientists, beauticians etc) proved a powerful way of building genuine motivation to change.

Understanding barriers will always be an important part of any marketing strategy. But next time you find yourself penning that brief to your agencies - just stop and pause and make sure you challenge them to look at the whole picture.

It is incredibly difficult for consumers to explain their own behaviour, but that doesn’t tend to stop people giving you an answer when you ask them questions about why they do or don't do something. This is not because they are seeking to intentionally mislead you, but an inherent bias we all have: post-rationalising our attitudes and behaviours to make them sound completely logical. And as a result, more rational barriers and problems always tend to surface quicker than deeper, more emotional motivations - but it is the later that will ultimately be the key to unlocking behaviour change.


With thanks to Thomas P. Peschak for the headline image