The theory and practice of getting consumers to change behaviour

New research examines how organisations and their marketing teams can successfully go about the process of changing consumer behaviour

Changing the behaviour of consumers in a meaningful and lasting way is the holy grail of many governmental bodies and marketing departments. Perhaps the pinnacle of behavioural change success for marketing professionals is when unique and specific language from a campaign becomes a new word in the form of an everyday colloquialism used by consumers.

Yet, research has assumed that people come up with names for behaviour once it becomes popular, according to Professor Valentyna Melnyk, Deputy Head of Research for the School of Marketing at UNSW Business School. “You’ve probably heard about staycation, doom-scrolling and glamping, and maybe even about twerking, geocaching, or more recently, stooping or niksen (if you have not, feel free to “google it” – another behavioural label, by the way),” she says.

“What these labels have in common is that they refer to behaviours and appeared after those behaviours grew in popularity. Prior research studied the diffusion of new words and content, focusing on factors that increase the contagiousness of social media postings or recommendations. We looked at the opposite issue – whether the mere existence of a label can make the behaviour take off.”

The result was the research paper, Behavioural Labeling: Prompting Consumer Behaviour Through Activity Tags, recently published in the Journal of Marketing. Produced by Professor Melnyk together with Martin Fritze, Professor of Marketing at Zeppelin University, and Franziska Völckner, Professor of Marketing at the University of Cologne, the research found that just by giving a behaviour a specific name, this can encourage people to adopt this behaviour. “So, if we name or tag an activity with a special word, it can make people want to do that activity. This is what we call ‘behavioural labeling’,” says Professor Melnyk.

In the course of the research, she and Professors Fritze and Völckner conducted many experiments in which they developed different behavioural labels and tested them in the field, as well as in the lab and online. “We saw, for example, that exposure to made up (by us) behavioural labels such as “hypeview” (leave a positive review online), or “trollspotting” (i.e., spotting online “trolls” and ignoring their reviews) changed real behaviour of consumers,” she says.

“One of the potential reasons that this happens is because when we give something a name, it can create pictures in our minds of that thing we’re talking about. In other words, behavioural labels help to connect different behavioural sequences, making them easier to imagine for people. Consequently, these mental images make it more likely that people will actually do that thing we named.”

Professor Valentyna Melnyk, Professor in Marketing and Deputy Head Research for the School of Marketing at UNSW Business School.jpg
UNSW Business School's Professor Valentyna Melnyk says behavioural labeling is the process of making people want to do a specific activity – which is the holy grail of many governmental bodies and marketing departments. Photo: supplied

Behavioural labeling for marketing professionals

There are a number of important implications from the research paper, according to Professor Melnyk. “For marketing professionals, I believe we discovered a new, complementary way to approach branding. And it’s a game changer,” she says.

“Understanding the behavioural labeling phenomenon and its related effects offers brand managers and marketers a fresh way of brand strategy and designing advertising and communication campaigns for products and services that revolve around a specific behaviour or novel types of required actions.”

For example, in Germany, she says there were two similar grocery-delivery services called “Flink” and “Gorillas.” Flink introduced a corresponding verb “to flink” which described the process of ordering a grocery delivery. According to Professor Melnyk, this behavioural label created a commercial advantage for Flink (with speed and relative ease) compared to its competitor, which did not use a behavioural label.

More generally, her research suggests a shift in focus from brand labels (which are still important) to labels attached to specific behaviours or actions, which are a constitutive factor for the brand. “This is a completely different mindset for building or managing brands. So, we would encourage brands to start thinking about behaviours they want to encourage and then link them to the brand,” she says.

An existing example of such an approach is P&G’s brand Ariel, which first introduced its “All-in-1 PODS,” which was a laundry detergent product in the US market. A single “pod” can be dropped into the washing machine before washing the laundry. To market the product, Ariel introduced the verb “to pod” (or “podding”), which Professor Melnyk says is a behavioural label to encourage the behaviour of using Ariel pods. “Arguably, finding a way to link the behavioural label to the brand name could have given more competitive edge to the label, but consumers did start “podding” she says.

Read more: How evidence-based marketing can change public health and nutrition for good

Behavioural labeling for public policymakers

For public policymakers, Professor Melnyk says the research has shed light on a new strategy to use in the communication toolkit to change public behaviour for the better (in addition to separate research on social norms she published in the Journal of Marketing).

“Public policymakers can use behavioural labels to promote certain behaviours to enhance sustainability, pro-social behaviour, or consumer wellbeing and safety,” she says. An international example of this is the “BOB” campaign, a Belgian government marketing initiative designed to raise awareness of the dangers of drunk driving. “When I first arrived from Ukraine to the Netherlands for my postgraduate studies, one thing I noticed on the way from the airport was a lot of billboards with just big words “BOB” on them, which did not seem to make much sense” recalls Professor Melnyk. Later, she learned the mystery of BOB. “’Bob’ is a label actually invented in Belgium, which the Belgian Road Safety Institute invented to describe a designated non-drinking driver,” she explains.

“They just wanted a short, initially meaningless word that would be visible on the billboard. The campaign has proven to be very effective in changing consumers’ attitudes and reducing drunk driving, and so the European Commission funded the campaign in other European Union countries, which adapted the campaign’s successful formula for their respective audiences.”

Interestingly, Professor Melnyk notes that the word “Bob” has been added to the Dutch and Flemish dictionaries, and the verb “bobben” (or “to bob” in English) describes the act of appointing someone or volunteering as a designated sober driver. “Being BOB for the evening became a thing and even students who were driving (rather than cycling) to the party would often discuss on the way in who is going to the BOB. I remember my fascination with the fact that an initially meaningless short word “BOB” could make people change behaviour,” says Professor Melnyk, whose research largely focuses on marketing associated with consumer behaviour, cross-cultural marketing, advertising, branding, as well as customer loyalty.

Years later, after completing her PhD and moving to Australia, this example resurfaced in a conversation with Professor Fritze, who was interested in the effects of linguistics on behaviour, and Professor Völckner, who previously collaborated with Professor Melnyk on branding and the power of foreign-sounding brand names. “So, we teamed up to investigate if merely giving a behaviour a name can promote this behaviour,” she says.

Translation: “BOB. When you are Bob, say it out loud! A safe way to get home”

In addition to the Belgian Road Safety Institute’s “Bob” example outlined above, she highlighted another example of relevance for policymakers: “lidcotting” (an invented word that was tested in this research which describes the process of boycotting lids from takeaway cups). “Behavioural labeling has the potential to reduce the use of single-use plastics, which has a positive environmental impact by reducing waste,” she says.

Another real-life example is “plogging”, which is a mix of the Swedish verbs plocka upp (pick up) and jogga (jog). This behavioural label was created to encourage picking up trash while jogging to reduce litter in public spaces, and Professor Melnyk says this subsequently became a notable trend in Sweden.

As part of the research, she also explained that “up-smiling” (cheering others up by using encouraging smiley faces in online chats) suggests that behavioural labels can induce more supportive and constructive behaviour in online settings. “This finding lends itself to applications in many societal contexts, from online classrooms to consumer discussion groups or forums, all of which can benefit from more supportive behaviours, especially during stressful times. Similarly, Professor Melnyk says behavioural labels like “trollspotting” (i.e., spotting online “trolls” and ignoring their reviews) may help consumers become more resistant towards information coming from internet trolls. “On a more general level, such labels, if adopted, may have the potential to break a ‘negativity spiral’ on social media and may help make the online world a better place for all,” she says.

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Marketing advice for encouraging behavioural change

For governmental bodies and marketing professionals who are looking to help people adopt a good behaviour as part of a campaign, Professor Melnyk simply says to “just give a name to the behaviour”. However, she adds an important disclaimer: “We have only just begun to scratch the surface of this interesting new phenomenon, so we do not know much about it yet, including whether the word construction matters and if so how,” she says.

“It is definitely an item on our research agenda. So, for now, to be on the safe side, I would recommend that any considered behavioural labels should be pre-tested first, but it is probably common sense anyway.”

Nonetheless, there is potentially significant upside for organisations and their marketing teams in getting the process of behavioural labeling right, and Professor Melnyk says the number one benefit is likely to be a measurable behavioural change. “We know that behaviour is typically much harder to change than attitudes, so an instrument that allows changing behaviour is important. The second benefit for organisations and companies is likely stronger brand equity because linking behaviour to the brand is bound to create additional brand associations and enhance consumer memory for the brand,” she concludes.


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