How behaviour change in times of crisis can inform brands’ approaches to sustainability

COVID-19 has led to a need for large scale behaviour change. What possibilities does this reveal for the future of brand leadership, and other global priorities like sustainability?
07 April 2020
bottled water
Anjali Puri

Global Head of Qualitative, Insights Division

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How do you create large scale behaviour change in a scenario where:

  • Change means loss. …Loss of money, time, ease, pleasures and freedom.
  • Individual change means nothing … without community action and systemic change
  • The consequences of inaction seem harmless … Harmless at an individual level, even though they are existential at an aggregate level
  • The responsibility for change is scattered: … Placed on disconnected, autonomous individuals free to make their own choices
  • Fear is not enough … While a powerful motivator to change, it is undone by all the above issues.

Four weeks ago, this scenario described the environmental crisis – the biggest challenge of our times and the primary focus of calls for transformational change. Until now. As the world’s attention turns to dealing with COVID-19, the parallels in what is being asked of people are striking, as are the patterns of resistance to change.

Behaviour change in COVID times

I am writing this on a warm, sunny weekend in London, as the media abounds with worried speculation about whether people will stay indoors in the face of temptation to be out in the sunshine. There has already been a need to close several parks because of truant sunbathers who have defied social distancing orders. News channels report that people continue to invite friends into their homes, to go out on dates with new people, and to endanger themselves in bewildering ways. Online shaming hashtags have mushroomed in the last few days, raging against the deniers and defiers.  

Of course, a large majority are complying with the rules – in London and around the world – on a scale never seen before. But behaviour change even in the face of this real, imminent danger has been neither spontaneous nor voluntary. Governments have progressed into more and more stringent measures, with ‘stay at home’ moving from a request to an instruction to complete lockdowns enforceable by the police and army.

From a behavioural science perspective, it is not difficult to understand the resistance to change – many of the well-documented explanations apply to the current situation. Attentional bias. Denial. Loss aversion. Optimism bias. Conflicting goals. Perceived lack of self-efficacy. The scenario at the beginning of this article sums up the human, psychological barriers to voluntary social distancing as much as to environmental action.

The paradox of preventive action

A difficulty with preventive action is that its success is hard to measure. If it is successful, people never really experience the outcome they have worked towards preventing, and the brain does not have a chance to register the relief and reward of warding off a threat. If global warming is arrested, is it because we stopped carbon emissions or was it never a real problem to begin with? If we don’t get a heart attack, is it because we exercised diligently and ate our avocados, or were we never at risk anyway?

We are propelled into action only when we palpably feel the presence of a threat. By which time, some damage has already been done, and preventive measures are less successful.

In this respect, the difference in the response to the COVID crisis by governments around the world has resulted in a spontaneous and unlikely A/B test unfolding before our eyes. A chance to examine the real impact of different types and degrees of action and inaction.

The COVID crisis as a petri-dish

What can we learn from countries like China, Singapore and South Korea that have managed to get the situation under control rapidly? Beyond the tracking, testing and isolating measures, what can we learn about the factors that have created behavioural compliance in these populations?

Two features stand out in contrast to what we’ve seen in Europe and the US:

  1. Unequivocal and firm regulatory intervention, with clear consequences of non-compliance. The specific interventions have differed in the three countries, as has the nature and degree of force to ensure compliance – from the authoritarian and aggressive measures employed in China to the subtler controls in Singapore, such as frequent, direct messaging and random spot checks by the government. But in all cases, the message has been unambiguous: behaviour change in the face of COVID is not a personal choice – it is the right thing to do, and the only thing to do.
  2. Cultural predisposition towards collectivism, long-term orientation and restraint, as defined by Geert Hofstede. Taken together, these create fertile conditions for compliance with COVID requirements, and create sufficient social pressure to overcome tendencies towards non-compliance.
    • In a collectivist culture people naturally act in the interests of the group and not necessarily of themselves. Their identities are rooted in a ‘we-ness’ and they readily see how individual action can have consequences at a collective level
    • Long-term orientation creates a willingness to adapt to change and take a pragmatic approach to working towards future goals
    • Restraint refers to the amount of control people exercise over their immediate desires and impulses

Regulatory intervention has been slow and less decisive in Europe and the US. Lockdowns, when imposed, have been gradual – with the consequences of non-compliance still not clearly defined. Culturally, these countries are individualistic, have a short-term orientation and favour indulgence over restraint. Social pressure here has not been as forceful and unidirectional and has taken time to build up – with segments of people initially feeling “silly about overreacting” and feeling pressured to conform to the nonchalance around them.

As an illustration of this stark contrast, Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer shows that the single most prevalent sentiment in China in response to the crisis is that “we have to react together, we will make it if we stick together” – with more than a quarter of those polled describing this as their dominant feeling. In contrast, only 5% in the US react in the same way.

What we know about social pressure and top-down regulatory control

Behaviour change research conducted by Kantar in the context of sustainability almost exactly mirrors the above themes. A piece of qualitative research conducted in the UK, US and China at the end of last year revealed striking differences between China and the western markets with respect to the triggers to sustainable behaviours and the factors that kept these behaviours in place.

The stories of change that we heard in the UK and US were very personal – gradual shifts that had taken place as a result of the growing noise in social media, the influence of friends and family, emotional shock factors and personal experiences of the impact of climate change, such as hurricanes and floods. Social buzz played its role in the initial stages of change, but as people progressed in their journey they felt very alone. Early adopters of sustainable behaviours who had gone the furthest on this path were likely to experience the ‘well-informed futility syndrome’ – fatigue and despair over the enormity of the challenge and doubts about the impact of their solitary actions.

In China, the stories of change pointed to a combination of regulatory initiatives by the government, and social norming. There was a sense of togetherness in the changes that people were making – these were not solitary journeys driven by personal conviction, but changes triggered and sustained by government rules and identification with the collective. People recognised their own role in creating collective change, and had no doubt that the collective change was happening – either because the actions others were taking were socially visible, or because they trusted in the government to ensure mass compliance.

A combination of regulatory interventions and social pressure is one of the most potent combinations for change. Obeying a clear, shared set of rules and feeling a sense of belonging both cater to our primal need for safety. They work in tandem, each feeding the other. Rules are effective not because of the fear of punishment but because they set the defaults – they define what everyone is doing, and what we must do to be part of ‘everyone’. The reverse is also true – it is only when we see everyone complying with the rule that we take the rule seriously.

Redefining brand leadership

In the sustainability research as well as in the response to the COVID crisis, it has been evident that people are looking for brands to take the initiative and do the right thing.

The Edelman Trust Barometer special report on the pandemic highlights the critical role that brands are expected to play during this crisis. To quote: Nearly two-thirds of UK respondents (62%) don’t believe the country will make it through the crisis without brands helping to address its challenges, while 90% want them to partner with government and relief agencies to help. Nearly three-quarters (74%) warn that companies placing profits before people will lose their trust forever.

Our research on sustainability points to similar needs.

  1. People believe that the burden of sustainable choices has been on the individual – big brands are believed to have been largely missing from the action. They want to see brands make an equal (and visible) sacrifice.
  2. People feel paralysed by the confusing and conflicting messages on the subject and need unified messaging and solutions. They want brands to work towards collaborative, cross-industry action.

And indeed, in the current crisis, brands have stepped up as never before – putting aside rivalries, diverting production capacity towards essential supplies, taking a leadership role in enforcing good behaviour, collaborating rather than competing.

Regulatory control is not the responsibility of the government alone. This is a message to brands to act as they have shown themselves capable of acting during the COVID crisis – not just by looking in the mirror and changing themselves, but also taking it upon themselves to stimulate and support wider behaviour change. This crisis can be a turning point in the way brands and businesses define their roles.

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