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Turning challenge into habit

19 February 2014

How was January for you? If, like me,  you saw the fires of your initial New Year’s zeal to, this time, really this time, change the way you eat/drink/exercise doused by the everyday drizzle of life, then you are not alone. Whole industries have been built on exploiting this desire for change and complete inability to bed it in.

Under the last government Forster Communications ran a number of social marketing campaigns on everything from increasing breast feeding rates to encouraging people to use sustainable transport modes. Some worked, some didn’t – when it was solely a communications campaign, they invariably didn’t succeed. Social marketing is now popularly known as nudging and its new name encapsulates its limitations as a method for creating change.

This hilariously paranoid account of the sinister possibilities of the movement of the government’s nudge unit to under the wing of Nesta does a great job at completely over-playing the impact that nudging can make on its own.

Too many nudge campaigns focus on getting people to take an initial positive action, such as signing up for a health check, partly because the approach has been inspired by techniques from commercial marketing where the bottom line is making the sale.

Nudging isn’t enough – embedding long term change requires more than a single push to action, it requires the development of a proper audience journey that allows for regression and progression and looks beyond marketing and communications for the stimulus.

This requires long term planning, investment and the willingness to redesign service delivery. It is much easier, in times of limited budgets and little appetite for difficult changes, to focus on the initial nudge. That’s the glamour end of behaviour change, but the real work and impact is found in that more mundane concept – maintenance. Going from inspiring a good intention and an initial positive action to permanent changes in behaviour is much more challenging. It is why campaigns like Change4Life will continually struggle to make any real difference while they are limited to simply nudging people in the right direction and why campaigns like Action on Sugar need support from all the key stakeholders and influencers. Like the successful salt campaign that preceded it, Action on Sugar is looking for genuine structural change that can facilitate and support sustainable behaviour change, and thus make any supporting nudge marketing campaigns more likely to succeed as a result.

As an agency, we talk alot about the need to evaluate outcomes and not just outputs in the communications campaigns we run, but when it comes to sustainable behaviour change even that isn’t enough. We need to differentiate between initial and long term or permanent outcomes on health campaigns if we want to move from a series of nudges. Otherwise, those campaigns are doomed to be forever January in their short termism.