For the Greater Good: How Brands Can Positively Change Consumer Behaviour

By James Underdown

6th February 2020

January is now synonymous with ditching unhealthy habits and beckoning positive change, be it for ourselves or for our environment. Whilst this suggests we’ll soon be living in a bountiful utopia, research published by YouGov found only 27% of people actually keep to their resolutions.

This is because, as humans we naturally follow the law of least effort.

This is the theory that someone seeking information will use the most convenient search method and will stop searching once minimally acceptable results are found. Applying this to behavioural change, it is almost impossible for brands, or anyone for that matter, to alter behaviour without an incentive. Naturally, we find it easier to stay on the same path than to change, even if the new route is a much more beneficial one.

Up in smoke

The UK has a rich history of successful campaigns designed to change consumer behaviour. Most memorably, the war on cigarettes. While smoking rates were falling – from 39% in 1980 to 24% in 2005 – Public Health England had a costly crisis on its hands, to the tune of £5.17 billion in 2005/06.

Although health warnings had been introduced in 1971, advertising had been banned, and the cost of smoking was increasing faster than inflation, it was still far too easy to enjoy a cigarette. Better health as an incentive wasn’t enough to encourage hardened smokers away from their daily habit.

But it was the 2007 indoor smoking ban, which recently topped the list of biggest public health achievements this century, that rewrote the rule book on smoking overnight. While many restaurants and offices had already banned smoking, pubs and clubs were nicotine safe havens. The ban turfed smokers out onto often cold and wet street corners or pub gardens. The fundamentals of the ban were to make it harder and harder to enjoy smoking. Suddenly, staying inside and refraining from smoking was now the choice that abided the law of least effort.

Did it work? A resounding yes. Since the ban, smoking rates have continued to fall and are now only 14.7% (2018). And what can we learn from this? Successful behavioural change must understand that as humans we’ll makes choices depending on what’s easiest. For change to happen, the status quo needs to be flipped on its head, while asking as little as possible from us. Without this, any brands or campaigns trying to improve public health or change consumer behaviour are destined to fail.

Right to the core

Another historic example was the 2003 five-a-day campaign. Kick-started by the Blair government, its main objective was to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables eaten. Since launch, its success has been questioned – consumption actually fell 11% in the five years after – and its cost to the taxpayer scrutinised.

Why did five-a-day fail where smoking succeeded? Because instead of improving access to fresh nutritious food or increasing the cost of unhealthy food, they leaned on the fear of disease. Choosing the healthier option was still the more difficult choice—one step quite literally became five. The habitual shift required to make such a big dietary change was just too daunting for most.

While it may have been a failure from a political point of view, it has fundamentally changed how food is branded. Everything from smoothies to frozen peas now labels how many of your five-a-day a serving represents. This doesn’t just encourage shoppers to buy their products, but also makes keeping track of portions as easy as possible. Allowing people to enjoy eating fruit and vegetables, one piece at a time.

Saved from the trash

On our most recent Making the Headlines podcast, Phil Borge-Slavnich spoke to Too Good To Go, an app which works with cafes and restaurants to reduce food waste by reselling perfectly edible food at a discount. The incentive to change behaviour here is a commercial one, making it simple for us to choose perfectly good food at a pinched price. It’s been adopted by almost 19 million users.

With the reduction in food waste an environmental imperative, learning as much as we can from successful behavioural change will help brands and consumers alike to have a positive impact. Complex sociological, industrial and global changes won’t happen overnight. But if we can learn anything from the successes and failures of the past 15 years, it is that real change happens one plate at a time.