Stop trying to change consumers’ behaviour

1 December 2021

Change your organisation’s instead

6 min read
6 min read

From forgotten New Year’s resolutions to abandoned gym memberships, we’ve all got firsthand experience of the intention-action gap. It’s a psychological phenomenon that marketers know all too well - overcoming the disconnect between consumer sentiment and direct action is an ongoing challenge for businesses. 

It’s no surprise that organisations have turned to the principles of behavioural science in a bid to better understand the factors that influence consumers’ decision-making and convert intentions into actual purchases. 

But why stop there? 

After all, overcoming the intention-action gap isn’t just an issue when it comes to convincing people to buy into a product, service, habit or lifestyle - it can also play a vital role in creating change at an organisational level too. 

The age of organisational change 

Modern organisations are living in an era of progressive change. From their environmental impact to the inclusivity of their hiring processes, via supply-chain ethics, corporate governance and social impact - organisations are under pressure to address almost every aspect of their operations. 

And they’re not shy about talking about it either. In fact, the public arena is filled with information about the progressive changes that organisations are making. The problem is that surprisingly few of them are actually able to translate those good intentions into definitive action. 

You need look no further than the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow to see this in action. For decades, world leaders have talked the talk by promising action on climate change - yet even when faced with the gravest of warnings they’ve failed to reach a consensus that will achieve significant action. 

If the most powerful people in the world can struggle to overcome the intention-action gap during such a pivotal moment, it’s no surprise that the rest of us can sometimes fail to enact change within our own organisations. But no matter if you’re a Head of State or a CEO, the good news is that the same behavioural science you’ve used to encourage external change, can - and must - be turned inward. 

The power of internal alignment 

To bridge that gap between intention and action, organisations need to create a roadmap that their people can follow - clearly defined commitments and behaviours that bring your brand’s purpose to life across every aspect of a business. 

That’s exactly what Virgin Atlantic did when they employed behavioural science techniques to deliver a real-world impact on their fleet’s fuel efficiency. The airline was an early mover on environmental issues and had already implemented a series of measures to help them better monitor fuel consumption. However, they found that the biggest driver for change within the organisation didn’t come from targets or technologies, it came from pilots.

Virgin found that pilots could take a series of decisions that impacted fuel efficiency, the key was motivating them to think about those actions as an integral part of their day-to-day routines.

The results were staggering. Virgin Atlantic found that by using these measures pilots saved 6,828 tons of fuel, reducing carbon emissions by 21,500 tons and saving £3.3 million in the process. They also found that pilots reported greater job satisfaction as a result of the project. 

Virgin Atlantic’s experience shows us what can be achieved when behavioural science techniques are turned inwards. Simply by connecting their people to their purpose the airline helped pilots see the tangible impact that their individual actions had on the company as a whole, helping to make the brand’s goals front-of-mind in every decision they made. 

Authenticity is everything 

Organisations striving to make a positive change often talk about the scale of their ambition and the grand impact their initiatives will have. However, many fail to recognise that aims on their own are not enough to move the needle. Instead they need to internally align their operations to help meet these goals, giving teams the agency to make a change and systems that will support them to actually implement them.

Purpose is big business at the moment. More and more organisations are attempting to clearly define who they are and what they stand for in order to build deeper connections with both their customers and internal stakeholders.  

And it’s working. 

A recent global study found that consumers are up to six times more likely to buy from brands with a strong purpose. Meanwhile research from Deloitte shows that purpose-driven brands have higher market share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors. 

What makes purpose-driven brands successful is their authenticity. In an age when society is virtual and where more and more of our relationships are transactional, it’s this authenticity that gives brands substance and helps them to stand out from the crowd. 

There are no shortcuts to achieving this, however. You can’t just claim to have a purpose, you have to act on it or you will quickly be found out. Customers aren’t afraid to call out companies that are failing to live up to their promises. But it’s not just the usual corporate suspects who are falling foul of this issue - some of the best-intentioned businesses on the planet are struggling to achieve genuine change. 

Just look at the recent developments surrounding Oatly, the purpose-driven plant-based milk brand that’s found itself on the receiving end of a consumer backlash after receiving funds from an equity firm with links to deforestation and Donald Trump. It’s an episode that shows us the price brands face if they don’t follow through on their intentions. In the current climate, words are cheap - you can’t simply talk the talk you have to walk the walk.

Using behavioural science for organisational change 

Deciding on your purpose is easy, actually enacting it is when things get a lot more difficult. By inwardly implementing behavioural science you can fuse action and intention. Used correctly these techniques won’t just save you from public backlash or engage your people to drive efficiencies, they will add tangible value across your entire organization. At a time when customers are looking to businesses to be more purposeful, understanding the psychology of change can make the difference between success and failure.

Mark Hauser
Applied Behavioural Scientist at The Team