Four steps to shifting behaviour for good (and for better)


There are many ways success is measured – and investment justified – in the marketing world. How do we know our (client’s) money has been well spent and we can all pat ourselves on the back at the end of a campaign or project? Audience reach, engagement, increased awareness, sales, share, and so on.

When it comes to behaviour change initiatives, similar measures can be relevant. But there is one measure that transcends simple campaign metrics and is the ultimate test of success in behaviour change initiatives. I’m talking about social acceptability, or unacceptability – the point when a certain behaviour change initiative reaches a tipping point and becomes largely self-policed by society. Consider driving without a seatbelt, not picking up after your dog, smoking while pregnant, littering. Once commonplace, these behaviours have since reached a point of social unacceptability through various behaviour change methods, programs, tools and campaigns. Nowadays, anyone caught in the act of any of these behaviours can expect anything ranging from serious ‘stink eye’ to a public scolding, even the wrath of law enforcement.

Effective behaviour change initiatives are no simple task and rarely, if ever, a quick win. Our behaviours are usually habitual and deeply ingrained, shaped by our family and friends, social norms and culture, among other things.

So how do we go about achieving this holy grail of behaviour change success? What are the steps involved? What can we achieve as a creative industry? And where do we need to leverage the strengths of other industries, organisations and parties?

There are many behaviour change theories and methodologies out there. We boil our recipe for behaviour change success down to four steps: Educate. Motivate. Facilitate. Sustain.


If we want people to change their behaviour around a particular issue, they obviously need to be aware of that issue. But more than awareness, they need an accurate understanding of the issue and the correct behaviours they should be displaying. We all know we should be recycling, and broadly the reasons why. But do we understand how to recycle correctly? Which waste goes where? What happens once it leaves our kerb? What impact it has on the environment? Education is a vital step in ensuring we are not just aware of the issue but genuinely understand what we should be doing, how we should be doing it, and the reasons why.  


Once the audience know what they should be doing, and why and how they should be doing it, we need to motivate them to shift their behaviour accordingly. This is about building a genuine desire to address the issue and a willingness to change the way they behave that is strong enough to overcome barriers to change. Strategy and creativity play a big part here as we need to connect with the audience on an emotive level to drive them to want to take action. This requires an intimate understanding of the target audience, their drivers and their pain points; not just in relation to the particular behaviour we are trying to change, but generally.


Facilitating behaviour change is all about removing barriers – actual or perceived – to change and making it as easy as possible for us to change our behaviour in the moments and environments that matter. These barriers can be as simple as forgetting what you’re meant to be doing, or not doing. Think about when you’re driving on the freeway and your speed creeps up over the limit; the alert most modern cars give is a prime example of a tool to facilitate immediate behaviour change through prompting. Prompts and alerts can be found on food packaging, through health star ratings for example, to ensure we’re reminded (and in some cases educated) about whether what we are putting in the trolley is helping or hindering our dietary goals.

Cost is another potential barrier to behaviour change. People may understand why and how to change their behaviour and may have a genuine desire to do so but if it’s going to leave them financially worse off, that’s a massive barrier for most of us. I’m sure we all fully endorse the virtues of renewable energy and support an energy system that is renewable, secure and affordable. The education and motivation to switch to renewable energy is there. However, the cost of setting up and running a cost-efficient renewable energy system in our home can be a barrier to making the change. The Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme was set up for this very reason; to provide a financial incentive for individuals, families and small businesses to install renewable energy systems, helping them overcome financial barriers and facilitating greater change to clean energy.


If it’s not sustained, achieving ‘one-off’ behaviour change is rarely a mark of success. Sustaining correct behaviours can be achieved in many ways, and is typically reliant on a number of different parties and organisations. From a campaign or program point of view, we can sustain behaviour change by continuing communication activities to motivate and facilitate behaviour change among the target audience. We can then look to industry-specific products and services relevant to particular behaviours to find ways of facilitating behaviour change (e.g. the speed limit or seatbelt alert in our cars). There’s the vital role of policy, legislation and enforcement. These have been a major driver in sustaining behaviour change in fields like road safety (speeding, drink driving and now mobile phone use) and will have an increasing role in sustaining behaviour change relating to sustainability and the natural environment as these issues become increasingly critical. And then, of course, there’s the enforcement of socially acceptable behaviours by our friends, family and communities. In most cases, this is not only the most powerful driver of behaviour change but the strongest indicator of success for behaviour change programs.

As our understanding of the world around us continues to grow, so too innovations increasingly provide new opportunities to make this understanding accessible to the masses. So while the world may at times seem like it’s a bit up the creek, we are in the best position we’ve ever been to leverage knowledge and innovation to affect behaviour change. By taking a human approach to gaining a deep understanding of the problems we need to solve, and building clear strategies that educate, motivate and facilitate sustained behaviour change, we can help make a better world and promising future.


All of us at Hard Edge have been inspired to focus our future on helping brands and organisations make the world a better place through thinking and creative that shifts behaviour and positively impacts society.

If that sounds like you, we'd love to help.  
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