Brands and behavioural change: learning from UK coronavirus communication

A tiger bears its teeth

Panic buying. BBQ parties. Crowding in parks. Why have so many people not heeded the UK Government’s guidance? The answer may lie in the approaches taken to behavioural change – something that brands must also be conscious of – as social norms undergo a dramatic paradigm shift.

The UK Government has faced many criticisms around how it’s handled COVID-19 strategies and communication. Nobody could pretend it would ever be an easy task, and we are all prone to mistakes – it’s just in this case, mistakes could have distressing real-world impacts, ultimately contributing to rises in mortality rates.

Where communications have been concerned, from my perspective, there’s been an unhelpful wooliness to much of the messaging. As the government balanced national health considerations against economic concerns and a respect for democratic rights, the guidance unwittingly became just that: guidance. It came across as optional, and spoke to the sorts of undesirables (we all know ‘em) who think that rules only apply to ‘other people’.

And a lack of specificity breeds uncertainty, which breeds more anxiety. Time and time again we were told to ‘only buy what we needed’: but what does that actually mean? What we need for a normal grocery shop? For two weeks of self-isolation? Or for a potential three-month lockdown?

Perhaps we would have seen (and continue to see) more effective results, if there had been more clear direction for people from the outset – backed up by a real understanding of what actually drives behavioural change.

A nudge in the right direction

Our news headlines are crammed with facts and figures: some are unnerving; some frightening; some numbers have almost too many zeroes on the end to be properly comprehensible to the average mind.

And when something is too big or complicated to think about, we put up psychological defences: it’s the same behaviour at play when we hear about the devastating effects of climate change and – counterproductively – decide that it’s too big to think about right now.

The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mantra – while charmingly British and reassuring at a surface level – is all too easily distorted, engendering an insidious and dangerous attitude of apathy. A call to inaction. Keep calm, sure. But carry on? Nuh–uh. ‘Keep calm and change your lives’ is more appropriate for the current war we’re fighting.

Unfortunately, human beings tend to only worry about something when it’s on their doorstep. A man-eating tiger three villages away is news. A man-eating tiger in our own village is a crisis.

The World Health Organisation knows that changing human behaviour is essential for managing pandemics and reducing the spread of an outbreak – by as much as 80%.

And of the methods used in behavioural change, the “nudge” technique is one of the most prevalent. As social animals, we tend to change our own behaviours when we see that our peers are doing it. So if you can demonstrate that many other people are doing something, this has a good chance of ‘nudging’ us to change our own behaviour and – therefore – of fostering compliance.

The heart of the matter

Appealing to our compassionate natures (which at most of us hopefully have) is another great way to change behaviour.

With COVID-19, a predominant message has been that most people ‘will only suffer mild symptoms’ – which, while intended to be reassuring, may also unintentionally give people leeway to ignore the fluffy guidance.

A recent survey, for instance, found that that 85% of US residents washed their hands more often in the previous seven days: an act to protect one’s self. However just 61% had self-isolated: an act that protects other people too.

So perhaps the message needed to be more empathetic: By demonstrating how high-risk groups in our society are vulnerable and need us to act differently to protect them, experts can give us a better understanding of why the measures being taken across the country are so critical

What brands can learn about behavioural change

Marketing exists to change people’s behaviour. It demands your attention to show you a product; it explains why you need that product; and it shows how you can get the product.

But in a time of great upheaval, when the norms of social behaviours are evolving by the day, and people are living their lives by different decisions, how can brands get their own messages across?

Here are a few ideas.

  1. Complement facts with values: Facts and figures are important. They demonstrate credibility. But while they engage the brain, they’re not so good at appealing to the heart. Your brand should have demonstrable values that come out in your messaging and help your audience to care.
  2. Identify your influencers: In times of uncertainty, people listen to the people that they respect.  Who is on your social media channels? A faceless logo, or real people with opinions and ideas? Remember Dr. Jack? For many people, coronavirus was still an abstract until a voice from the front-line spoke up revealing harsh realities and making a desperate plea that people change their own lives to save those of other people.
  3. Have stories: Stories are what help people to understand the fluid state of the world that we live in. Case studies of real-life successes, and indications of what peers are doing, can ‘nudge’ us to better understand how your business can offer the support that we might need.
  4. Be positive motivators: People are spending much, much more time at home. How can your brand help people to impose productive structures in their daily life? How can you help your audience to feel positive about the way they are spending their time?
  5. Be creative: Now is the time to explore new ways of engaging with audiences. The usual methods do not all apply right now. By showing agility, leadership, and empathy through creative approaches to business, you’ll be in a good position to gain your audience’s attention, and drive changes in their own behaviour.

If your business is thinking about how to drive positive behavioural change among your audience in this time of large-scale disruption, get in touch to chat about how we can work with you on your brand and your messaging.

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