Moving stakeholders from cause to change

If necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps opportunity is the father.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps opportunity is the father. After all, many businesses are regularly and robustly seeking opportunities to inventively move markets, spur innovation, and make people happier, healthier, and safer.

Increasingly, we're seeing companies explore the business performance opportunities connected with facilitating and fostering socially beneficial behavior change movements in such areas as health and nutrition, safety, personal finance, the environment and more.

It's a trend worth noting and one that we think has staying power. Businesses are realizing that harnessing the power of behavior change is the key to a triple win that's good for individuals, good for society, and good for business.

Consider this: changing the components of our personal behavior – our attitudes, motivations, or abilities – can spur the purchase of foods that are better for you, prompt increased financial responsibility, encourage better habits around taking medications regularly as prescribed, and so on. And as a result of those actions, a food manufacturer can increase sales and expand its product lines, a financial institution can have a larger, less risky customer base, and a pharmaceutical company can see optimized efficacy of drugs.

Leveraging the science of behavior change is at the heart of social marketing, a discipline that applies marketing principles and techniques to prompt and support behaviors that benefit society as well as individuals. In effect, it moves people beyond awareness toward actions that matter.

Social marketing traditionally has had a rich and successful legacy in the public sector, something that our agency has been acquainted with for nearly three decades. We know how social marketing gets people to buckle up, prompts screenings for colon cancer, the purchase of flood insurance, and more. These are significant impacts and the results cannot be discounted.

What we've seen underscores more than ever that these same proven behavioral models and theories can be used to turbo-charge corporate commitments and activities in support of important social issues.

For example, an insurance company can be on the forefront of programs to get its customers to stop texting and driving. Customers benefit because they reduce their risk of an unnecessary, tragic accident. Society enjoys safer roads, and importantly, by seeding this type of behavior change, the insurance company can reduce its claims payout.

Or a food manufacturer can use behavioral science to get consumers to eat healthier. It's a triple win because consumers reduce their morbidity rates, society has healthier workers and communities, and the food manufacturer will see an increase in demand and sales of better-for-you products or expansions of product lines.

Measureable and meaningful change among consumers and other stakeholders in support of shared social goals comes when you tap into their motivations, engage their emotions, and prompt and support them to do (or not do) something. And companies are uniquely positioned to equip their constituencies and customers to act. They have broad reach and resources, their brands are familiar and part of customers' lives, and channels already exist for dialogues with customers.

Some may think that effective behavior change can be accomplished with discretionary, one-time behavioral nudges that influence a single decision on what to eat or how much to contribute to a 401K. But sustained, complex behavior change — the kind that transforms lives and our society — happens over time. To affect lasting, sustained, and consequential change, companies need to commit to the long haul and pursue change that's realistic and reflective of their business. For example, some social issues are simply not good matches for companies. And behavior change is not the silver bullet for all business challenges.

But, if a company's business interests are related to societal health and well-being, to conservation of resources, to safety or disaster preparedness, or similar vital issues, then the power of behavior change cannot be discounted.

Advancing beyond the actions and practices that companies do on their own and engaging customers and consumers as change agents can be part of a transformative business solution that sets companies apart.

Bess Bezirgan is the leader of OgilvyEngage, a global behavior change practice at Ogilvy Public Relations.

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