Why marcomms needs to fall back in love with psychology

Sam Knowles, founder and MD of Insight Agents – who also holds a doctorate in experimental psychology – encourages marketers to get back to their psych roots

Marketing communications is dysfunctional. For a family of disciplines whose very purpose is to change what people think and do, too few practitioners ever stop and think how to apply the principles of psychology to their day-to-day work. You know, psychology. The study of human motivation and behaviour.

Though many communicators of every stripe and function studied this super-popular subject to degree level and beyond, they forget all their Pavlov, Skinner and Seligman the moment they stop studying. It slips their mind that Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, invented PR with his very readable book(let), Propaganda, first published in 1928.

This is a pity. This psychological black spot prevents marcomms from being taken seriously in the c-suite because it renders it more of an art than a science.

Looking for inspiration in behavioural psychology helps whether you want people to adopt a new habit (Apple’s force touch), to enter into a new category for the first time (smart watches), to do more of something (exercise), to do less of something (eat salt), or stop doing something altogether (smoke).

So let’s just scratch the surface of behavioural psychology and see what a quick refresher course can tell us about three important roles communication plays in behaviour change. Let’s consider how Lifebuoy has used communication in complementary ways to promote hand-washing among newly-urbanised, aspirational consumers in the developing world.

1. It provides information
Washing your hands after going to the loo and before eating reduces the risk of diarrhoea.

2. It provides motivation
Kids who wash their hands regularly are sick less often, have better attendance at school, get better exam results, go on to university, become doctors and lawyers.

3. It provides behavioural skills
Information-rich roadshows demonstrating the hidden threat of bacteria and how washing with antibacterial soap neutralises this threat.

It communicates according to a paradigm drawn from our understanding of how we learn, and what we need to do in order to adopt new habits. What’s more, it uses reward not punishment cues to reinforce new behaviours. Attention, parents and others: punishment really doesn’t help people learn positive new behaviours.

What’s more there are short-term benefits too, and these allow long-term benefits to stay in focus. If kids are sick less often, they suffer less. Parents suffer less, too. Not just in seeing their children well, at school and thriving. They’ll have to take less time off work – time they can’t afford – and they’ll prosper as a result. All this from a little bar of red soap.

The rise of behavioural economics has helped communications to fall in love with psychology again, too. Observe the ascent of Freakonomics, Richard Thaler’s nudge theory and Number 10’s nudge unit, as well as accessible gurus like Rory Sutherland, who leads Ogilvy Change.

It’s time the ranks of not-so-hidden persuaders tuned into what psychology teaches us all over again.