The art and science of changing behaviour applied to marketing strategies

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The fact that buying decisions are made by the subconscious mind has become common knowledge in the marketing field. Brand experts such as Martin Lindstrom, and the Nobel prize winner of Economics Daniel Kahneman, amongst others, support this finding. The increasing interest in grasping subconscious drivers of decision-making has influenced the way in which lead marketers and brands understand their consumers currently. Nike, Coke and Target are a few of the key players applying Neuromarketing, Behavioural Economics, and Behavioural sciences in general when understanding their target market.

As a result of the integration of behavioural and marketing principles, more so than ever, making sense of why humans behave in a certain way is pertinent to anyone who considers themselves at the top of their advertising, branding and marketing game. But the enquiry does not stop there. In fact, it is only the beginning of a journey where a deep understanding of behaviour is the starting point and triggering behaviour changes that brands would like to see when their consumers engage with them is the destination.

Below are some examples of the art of behaviour change in practice.

Predicting behaviour before it happens

The New York Times published a piece in 2012 that I found interesting and a little unsettling at the same time. “How companies learn your secrets”, explained how Target, the North American retailer, identified pregnant women and went as far as predicting the occurrence before it happened.

Their marketing goal was to understand how decision-making was influenced by major life events such as having a baby. Once this was clear, Target aimed at determining the key moments in which purchasing patterns shifted so that they could influence present and future buying decisions. Put differently, they aimed at triggering behaviour change, and they achieved it.

By rigorously observing shopping habits of women throughout the year, the retail shop’s behavioural researchers discovered that some patterns were different as women’s pregnancies advanced. When collating the data, Target learnt that they could disrupt their habits by activating the right cues as per individual preferences. The cues included emailing discount coupons, or personalised offers amongst others. By doing so, they encouraged people to buy other items that they would not have otherwise purchased.

I chose to use the above example because it shows to what extent understanding drivers of behaviours can lead brands to disrupt them and ultimately modify them. In this case, Target became so good at predicting pregnancies that it ran into ethical problems with the father of a teenage girl who was pregnant without him knowing it. This topic deserves to be discussed in another piece altogether, but it makes the point clear: identifying and disrupting behaviour is not only possible but also very powerful.  The latter only happens provided the right triggers are activated, which is telling encourages people to perform a specific behaviour at a certain time, and whenever there is a good understanding of people’s habits in the first place.

Marketing strategies of the sort require a thorough knowledge of human behaviour combined with very good data gathering skills. Technology start-ups are a good case study to explain the point.

Behaviour for effective design

Standford University has a persuasive technology lab that develops methodologies to prompt behaviour change. B.J. Fogg, the lead researcher, explains that for individuals to perform a behaviour they must be motivated and able to do so. The relationship between motivation and the user’s actual ability make triggers that activate changes more effective.

As I showed with the Target case study, the first step of their strategy was to predict and understand habits and motivations. Pregnant women had clear reasons to behave in a certain way, which Target then effectively triggered with emails or coupons containing not only baby products, but items of all sorts so that it didn’t seem like they were spying on their customers.

Other examples of triggering desired behaviours include using Facebook, which engages customers by notifying them every time they are tagged in a photo. In such a situation the user is already motivated to interact with the platform, and if connectivity is not an issue the trigger will be activated and the user will log in so that he/she can see their photo or upload more content.

The latter may sound simple but, as good marketing strategies often prove, the most effective executions (i.e. the ones that trigger behaviour change) are generally straightforward.

Other sorts of campaigns achieve results through slightly more complex offline activations.

“Rios de luz” (rivers of light) is one of the most awarded Colombian advertising campaigns because of the impact it had. The creative team was inspired by the fact that rivers are the jungle’s highways and, therefore, guerrilla’s most effective communications channel.  The execution aimed at delivering messages from their own families and relatives to Colombian guerrillas so that they leave the armed group and go back to their families. The creative agency, Lowe SPSS, sent shiny crystal balls via the main rivers surrounding guerrilla areas. The balls containing the messages played the role of behaviour triggers, accompanied by a TV commercial and radio ads.

The campaign alone, however, was not fully responsible for the results but, as explained earlier, it was effective because there was previous motivation amongst members to leave the armed group, and the Colombian government enabled them with the support provided by the policy of peace and reconciliation. 6.823 balls were sent during Christmas, increasing the demobilization by 10%, with one of them taking place every 6 hours during December 2011 and January 2012 (  

The case studies I have used in the piece show that for campaigns to be effective, a bit more than a creative execution is needed.

Key components of behaviour change executions

When planning a marketing campaign it is important to ask whether it is realistic for it to modify behaviour in regards to people’s motivation and their ability to perform the action.

In a broad sense, it is easier to trigger an action once the person is motivated and able to perform it. Even though this is not always the case, the skill lies in enhancing motivation, and focusing on the simplicity of the interaction while users engage with the product. For instance, everyday I play a game called Lumosity that promises to improve my cognitive ability to think faster, and outside the box. Every time I play, I get to see how much I have improved over time and compare my current score with that of other people. These small celebrations whenever I increase my score motivate me to continue playing. Since I have the financial means and the site makes it easy for me, I renew my subscription each month.

Given my levels of motivation and ability, it seems that I fit into Lumosity’s target market. Ideally, thus, well planned and executed campaigns should focus on those who already have an inclination to participate. The main reason being, motivation does not always result in behaviour, while ability and triggers combined can be more effective.

From my experience on planning digital marketing campaigns, the most successful ones do not assume people are motivated; they count on a proven record of previous engagements that show motivation levels. In addition, their roll out ties in the call to action, i.e. subscribe in competition, to behavioural triggers, i.e. bought media, tweets to remind actions, etc. Finally, they strive for simple behaviours that are not hard to perform in the consumers’ contexts. The premise is that it is easier to play a role in people’s immediate context than influencing their actual mindset.

Going back to “Rios de luz” the creative team intervened within the context that the guerillas live: the rivers.  The balls containing messages triggered the desired behaviour but, essentially, the rivers as the context, played a key role in the impact that the campaign had. Guerrillas don’t have TVs but the rivers are their “highways”. 

Marketers as interpreters of a lateral world

Throughout this paper I have made a case for Marketing that does not guess, or makes assumptions about people’s behaviours and motivations, but enquires, and systematically tests effective methods. In my opinion, Marketing not only has the ability, but also the responsibility of providing clients and brands with solid arguments behind creative executions. Put differently, marketers (myself included) should be the bridge between a world understood literally, and a world that is lateral and multi-layered, in which uncovering human behaviour’s drivers and triggers is at the core.


Duhigg, C. (2012) How companies learn your secrets. The New York Times. Accessed from:

Fogg, B.J. (2009) A behaviour model for persuasive design. Standford University.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Think fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishers.