Encouraging Behaviour Change – It Takes Time

“Preparation, patience and a willingness to play the long game.”

These were some of the insights shared by Lisa Cohen, National Programme Manager of Scottish mental health programme See Me at a recent seminar I attended in Wellington, New Zealand.

Many of the factors she raised that contribute to and hinder the success of social marketing programmes are the same ones we’ve been thinking about at New Zealand’s Social Marketing Network. In particular, we’ve been examining the challenges faced by two distinct groups – practitioners (the ones designing and conducting social marketing programmes) and authorisers (the ministers, managers or chief executives who create the budget parameters, time frames and programme boundaries).

Some of these are worth giving a wider airing.  Combining some of Lisa’s lessons with discussions we’ve been having on this same topic in New Zealand, here are four factors that contribute to the environments for creating real and sustained social change.

1.       Programmes, not campaigns.

Social problems require a systematic response, and social marketing, in its true sense, requires a programme approach.  Too often, we hear talk of “social marketing campaigns” – generally one-off or single-layer interventions that are often advertising based.  But while advertising campaigns can be powerful, on their own they rarely change behaviour, and do not actually constitute social marketing.

“A ‘campaign’ may be a part of a social marketing programme, but it’s crucial to think about the programme as a whole” – Lisa Cohen.

The challenge here for social marketers is that an advertising campaign is something you can outsource; it’s finite, tangible, and easy to measure.  Programme authorisers often ask for the campaign, without also demanding the rigour of a broader programme.

The trouble is, there’s not much sizzle in an integrated programme.  They have less well-defined boundaries, tend to be slower to build, and less glorious to trumpet.  But they also work better and in the long run can be more cost effective.  So our call to practitioner and authorising forces is to demand and invest in programmes, not just campaigns.

2.       Co-design, collaborate and engage (don’t preach).

Engage and involve the target audience in programme identification, design and implementation as much, and as soon, as you can.  The sooner you do, the more you invest in meaningfully gathering and implementing their input, the better the results in the long term.  In the Scottish See Me programme, it’s possible to see the strengthening of the programme (in terms of its reach and impact), the more they involved the voices of people with lived experience of mental illness in their programme planning.

Lisa Cohen says it’s all about talking to people – reaching them one conversation at a time.

The requirement for practitioners is to identify communities early on and engage them meaningfully in programme design and development.  For programme authorisers this means giving your teams the time and space to do this respectfully and properly.

3.       Be specific about the change you want.

The See Me programme put real effort into clearly identifying the specific actions people could take to make a difference and targeted those actions to specific audiences.

In our rush to implement, we often to keep our programme goals vague and our calls to action general.  Being specific requires patience and a robust analysis (including audience research) to properly understand your programme goals and the behaviour you’re seeking.

To increase the likelihood of positive change occurring, practitioners and authorisers alike need to adopt the discipline of being very clear about exactly whose behaviour they want to change, and what they want them to do.

4.       Invest in the planning process.

Lisa said they were put in the difficult initial position of creating a campaign before they had a programme in place – “building the plane while we were flying it”.

While this is frustrating for practitioners it’s not the real problem.  The real problem is the potential financial and social costs of this ad-hoc, tactical approach to addressing social problems.  The costs include, at worst, creating a campaign that has negative impacts and causes unintentional harm.  Other risks include wasting public funding and depleting sector, stakeholder and public goodwill.

To successfully create positive social change will require a stronger and more robust authorising environment that understands the value of a programmatic approach and properly engaging with citizens.

It might take time but, to quote Sun Tzu, it’s the slow route to victory.

Fat free and 100% natural: seven food labelling tricks exposed

By Sandra Jones, University of Wollongong
This article was originally published on The Conversation 

If you’re confused by food labels, you’re not alone. But don’t hold your breath for an at-a-glance food labelling system that tells you how much salt, fat and sugar each product contains. Australia’s proposed “health star rating” labelling scheme was put on hold in February, following pressure from the food industry. And it’s unclear whether the scheme will go ahead.

Commercial marketers use a variety of tricks to make foods seem healthier and more appealing than their competitors, particularly when it comes to products aimed at children. One of the most powerful advertising tools a food manufacturer has is the packaging, as it’s what we look at immediately before deciding which food to purchase.

Next time you’re shopping for food, look out for these seven common labelling tricks:

1. Colour

The colour of food packaging can influence our perceptions of how healthy a food is.

A recent study found consumers’ perceptions of two identical chocolate bars were influenced by the colour of the nutrition label; despite the identical calorie information, people perceived the one with the green label to be healthier.

2. Tricks and Seals

Another tool of savvy food marketers is the use of “ticks” and “seals” that we subconsciously process as indicating that the product has met some form of certification criteria.

A recent study found that nutrition seals on unhealthy food products increased perceptions of healthiness among restrained eaters. And a study with parents of toddlers found 20% of parents identified the presence of a quality seal as one of the reasons for their purchase of toddler formula rather than cow’s milk.

3. Weasel Words

Food packaging often contains words that imply the food contains certain ingredients, or has been prepared in a way, that makes it healthier (or at least better than similar foods).

But many of the words – such as “healthy” or “natural” – have no legal or formal meaning. While the Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code regulates the use of specific health and nutrient content claims, it doesn’t regulate or define these loose terms.

“Weasel claims” describe modifiers that negate the claims that follow them. This allows manufacturers to avoid allegations of breaching advertising or labelling regulations, while being such a commonly used word that it is overlooked by the consumer.

For example, Activia “can” help to reduce digestive discomfort – but did you read the fine print? It “can” help if you eat it twice a day and “… as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle”.

Similarly, Berri Super Juice contains antioxidants which “help” fight free radicals (but so does whole fruit, which also contains more fibre).

4. Less bad stuff than . . .

Unfinished claims tell us the product is better than something – but not better than what. In food labelling, we really have to hunt for the “what”.

Fountain’s Smart Tomato Sauce still contains 114mg of salt per serving, while the brand’s regular tomato sauce contains 186mg (more than several other brands).

The Heart Foundation defines low-salt foods as those with less than 120mg per 100g; Fountain’s Smart tomato sauce has 410mg per 100ml. It does, however, have less sugar than many of its competitors.

So, if you are trying to reduce your sugar intake it may be a good choice, but if you are trying to reduce your sodium intake, look for one of the low-salt varieties and read the label very carefully (reduced is rarely synonymous with low).

Smiths’ Thinly Cut potato chips contain 75% less fat than “chips cooked in 100% Palmolein Oil”. But they don’t contain less fat than Original Thins, Kettle, or most other brands on the market.

It’s also worth taking a close look at the recommended serving size – in both cases the nutrition information is based on a 27g serving, but Smiths’ “single serve” pack is 45g (15.7g fat; one-fifth of an average adult’s recommended daily intake, or RDI).

5. Irrelevant claims

A common strategy is to list a claim that is, in itself, completely true – but to list it in a way that suggests that this product is unique or unusual (when in reality it is no different to most foods in that category).

“All natural” and “no artificial colours and flavours” are appealing features for parents looking for snacks for their children. But most standard cheeses (including many packaged products such as cheese slices) also contain no artificial colours of flavours.

This is not to suggest that Bega Stringers are a bad product or that you shouldn’t buy them – just that you may want to think about the cost per serve compared to other cheeses that are equally healthy.

Like most lolly snakes, Starburst snakes are “99% fat free”. The old adage of “salt-sugar-fat” holds here; products that are low (or absent) in one are typically very high in another. In the case of lollies, it’s sugar.

As with the potato chips above, serving size is important. Those of us who can’t resist more than one snake might be surprised to realise that if we ate half the bag, we would have consumed two-thirds of our daily sugar intake (although we can’t blame the pack labelling for that!).

Sun-Rice Naturally Low GI White Rice illustrates this use of technically correct claims. Let’s start with “cholesterol free” – this is totally true, but all rice is cholesterol free.

The pack also states in very large, bright blue letters that it is “Low GI”. In much smaller letters that almost disappear against the colour of the package is the word “naturally”. This use of different colours to attract, or not attract, attention is a common marketing technique.

The product is indeed low GI, at 54 it is just below the cut-off of less than 55. But the “naturally” refers to the fact that what makes it low GI is the use of basmati rice rather than another variety, and other brands’ basmati rice would have a similar GI.

6. No Added . . .

Berri Super Juice proudly, and truthfully, claims it “contains no added sugar”. You may conclude from this that the sugar content is low, but a closer look at the nutrition information label may surprise you – a 200ml serve of this super juice contains 25.8g of sugar (29% of your recommended daily allowance).

While contentious, some have even suggested that there is a link between fruit juice and both obesity and metabolic disease, particularly for children. A better (and cheaper) way of obtaining the fruit polyphenols is to eat fruit.

7. Healthy Brand Names

Healthy sounding words are not only used as “claims” but are often used as brand names. This first struck me when I was looking for a snack at my local gym and noticed the “Healthy Cookies” on display; they had more sugar, more fat and less fibre than all of the others on sale (Healthy Cookies was the brand name).

Brand names are often seen as a key descriptor of the nature of the product. Research has found that people rate food as healthy or unhealthy based on pre-existing perceptions of the healthiness of a product category or descriptor, particularly among those who are watching their diet, and may thus select the unhealthier option based on its name or product category.

If, for example, you’re watching your weight, you may be attracted to the Go Natural Gluten Free Fruit & Nut Delight bar, assuming that it will be a healthier choice than a candy bar. But you might be surprised to note that it contains 932 kJ (11.0% of your RDI) and a whopping 13.6g of fat (10% of your RDI).

A 53g Mars bar contains slightly more calories (1020kJ) but a lot less fat (9.1g), although the Go Natural bar could argue for “healthier” fat given the 40% nut content.

So, can we really distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods by looking at the wrappers?

The healthiest wrappers are made by nature, from the simple ones that can be eaten after washing (like apples and carrots) to those that need some disposal (like a banana or a fresh corn cob).

If you are buying your food wrapped in plastic or paper, it’s a little more complex. We need to see past the colours, pictures and cleverly-crafted claims and take a careful look at the ingredients and nutrition panel.

Sandra Jones is an ARC Future Fellow and receives funding from the Australian Research Council for her position and other research projects. She also receives funding from the Cancer Council Victoria, Cancer Institute NSW and FARE.

This article was originally published on . . .conversation-full-logo-


Navigating Change in the Not for Profit Sector

The not for profit landscape is changing dramatically in Australia.  Be assured, it will not be the same in 10 years time, most likely five.  But are we ready?  Have we asked and answered the marketing questions we may need to survive?

Environmental change in the not for profit sector will see organisations reviewing and subsequently relying on effective and targeted marketing to adapt and respond to the new environment in which they are operating if they are to remain sustainable and relevant into the future.

The procurement of human services by governments is also changing.  There’s  a greater outsourcing of services to the non government sector.  We’re now in a competitive environment in which for-profits are emerging and pricing and client outcomes are key. This is creating a hybrid market economy, where on one hand we’re operating in a competitive environment and on the other there are increased bureaucratic, reporting and contract demands on what funding we get, and how we use it.

We have no choice but to be competitive and some of us need to change our charity mentality in this regard.

The economic environment and the response to debt and expenditure pressures by government will see an increased demand for human and social services. This at a time of budgetary restrictions on funding for social services.

We are all too aware of the changing demographics of our community. How will we provide effectively for our ageing population?

There is an increased focus on customers and customer outcomes, as there should be.  Ironically, this is being lead by the changes in how government provides its funding and procures services.

Irrespective, the customer will now have greater choice and control over how they use their money, which service provider they use and even what staff they will have in their home providing those services.

We will see people move between service providers.  The traditional service provider ‘specialist’ model will largely cease.

To meet these needs not for profits will either be large organisations, which have size and scale, or will be niche service providers. The ‘middle ground’, where you provide quite a few different services but to a limited customer base in each, is disappearing.

We need to ask some fundamental marketing questions. Do we know our ‘competition’?  Do we know our customers?  Have we got the right service mix?  Can we deliver on our service promise?  Have we got the right pricing structure?  Do people know who we are?  What is our reputation?  The list goes on.

For me, there are three key marketing lessons:

  1. Differentiate or die.
  2. The customer is key.
  3. Outcomes are pivotal.

Keep these points in mind, and navigating change in the non profit sector may be a little more manageable.

An Introduction to Behavioural Economics for Health

There’s no doubt that there’s been fervent interest in behavioural economics in the last couple of years among social marketing and policy practitioners. Both the UK and NSW Governments have developed insights teams dedicated to finding new ways to ‘nudge’ citizens to be healthier, greener and more civic-minded.  So how can behavioural economics help with program design and campaign development?

Social marketing is about changing behaviour – behaviour that is driven by rational and irrational desires.  The rational part of our decision-making process can be influenced by increasing knowledge (e.g. presenting the facts about skin cancer), increasing efficacy (e.g. healthy cooking classes or QUIT hotlines) and through legislation and subsidies (e.g. seat-belt laws, tobacco tax).

However, extensive academic research has found that people are often “predictably irrational”.  When making decisions we take mental short cuts.  We’re influenced by the desires and distractions of the moment. Knowing how people will behave irrationally can provide guidance on how interventions can be structured to influence healthy behaviours.

Below are three common decision errors, which have major implications for healthy behaviours:

Present bias

Present bias is the tendency to focus on the immediate benefits or costs of a situation and undervalue future consequences.  An example is postponing a session at the gym to watch TV; or undervaluing the long-term harms of tanning to look good now.

Researchers are now looking at a range of tools to help manage present bias.  These include offering small incentives immediately after a ‘desirable’ behaviour has been done. One example is a pilot scheme in the UK where mothers from disadvantaged neighborhoods are given food vouchers worth around A$340 if they breastfeed for the first six weeks of their child’s life.

Because the use of incentives is very effective at motivating one-time behaviours (e.g. getting a vaccination or attending a screening), it is now being evaluated as an effective motivator for habit formation (e.g. exercising everyday).

People who commit to making a change are more likely to do so.

The use of ‘contracts’ and commitment devices to pledge to a certain behaviour or goal are also very effective. These devices leverage the desire to be (or to appear) consistent with what we have committed to doing.  Once we have made a choice (e.g. pledge to give up drinking for a month or to run a marathon), we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.

This is especially powerful when the pledge or commitment is made in public, such as social media, as people are pressured to be consistent with their earlier commitments.

Status quo bias

Status quo bias is the tendency to choose a ‘path of least resistance’ in our decision-making.  An example of this is in western European countries that have an ‘opt in’ policy for organ donation, that is, the default is non-participation, donation rates tend to be close to just 10%. In contrast, in countries with an ‘opt out’ policy, in which citizens are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless they actively choose to opt out, organ donation rates are typically 98%–99%.

It’s important to consider the ways in which choices or options for programs are structured. The choices which social marketers want people to choose, whether it’s to recycle or take the right medication, needs to be the choice which requires the least amount of cognitive energy to choose.

Loss aversion

Loss aversion is the tendency to put much greater weight on losses than gains. Studies have shown that a loss has roughly twice the disutility of an equivalent dollar gain. Knowing this decision bias can help frame messages and structure the way incentive programs work.

Be Mindful that . . .

While behavioural economics has the potential to make programs and policies more effective, as with any concept or intervention, there are limitations.  The tools presented by behavioural economists are part of a possible solution, and should not substitute for public policies, infrastructural projects, or programs that increase knowledge and efficacy.

We also need to consider the social determinants which affect health and the decisions people make, while looking to policies that will deal with the underlying contributors to poor health, such as poverty, inequity and illiteracy.

As described by Loewenstein and Ubel, behavioural economics should “complement, not substitute for, more substantive economic interventions.  If traditional economics suggests that we should have a larger price difference between sugar-free and sugared drinks, behavioural economics could suggest whether consumers would respond better to a subsidy on unsweetened drinks or a tax on sugary drinks.”


Disclaimer: Charissa has written this post as an independent contributor.  This post reflects only Charissa’s views and not those of her employer or clients.

Interested in learning more?  Dr Kevin Volpp, the Founding Director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioural Economics at the University of Pennsylvania will be the keynote speaker at the Incentivising a Healthier Australia Forum in  Sydney on Thursday 6 March 2014.  Or, you could always  Contact Us

Crime, Justice and Social Determinants

It has been said that all wars begin long before the first shot is fired.  So it is with crime.  The causes of crime are not to be found in the justice system.  They arise well before.  And so the solutions cannot rest on the justice system alone.

The social determinants of crime are broadly similar to the social determinants of health which are reflective of living and working conditions.  These in turn hinge on the availability of work, adequacy of education and access to health services.

There is an established domino effect on a child’s health and education outcomes, and consequential societal outcomes, notably crime, where there is economic and social deprivation.  A child’s health and education is in turn singularly dependent on affordable access to services and resources.  But there is a disparity of affordable access between communities.

A 2009 Australian Human Rights Commission report identified a number of ‘high stakes’ communities in Western Australia.  Large proportions of young men from these communities are cycled through prison and then returned.  This can lead to further destabilization of those communities.

Moreover the high imprisonment rates from residents of such communities contribute to community break down, elevated crime rates and high incarceration rates.

Logically, preventative funding and improved accessibility of services in these localities will change the behavioural dynamic of both the community and the individuals residing there.  Overseas evidence indicates that the result is the emergence of safer and more confident communities.

Crime is a burden on the whole of our society.  It impacts our lives through loss of property, increased insurance premiums, and, when there are assaults, the need for medical intervention.  It also requires the diversion of scarce government resources to support the justice system.  As reported in the West Australian newspaper, since coming to power the Barnett Government has spent $655 million expanding the capacity of the prison system.  The daily cost of housing a prisoner reached $191 a day in 2011-12 with each prisoner spending an average 217 days in custody.

People want to see  ‘justice done’ and in response governments of both persuasions have invested heavily in the judicial and corrective services systems.  Western Australia’s incarceration rate is now above the national average.  More alarmingly, Aboriginal Australians are incarcerated at ten times the rate of non-Aboriginal Australians.  This ranks as the highest for any ethnic grouping in the world.  It’s time for change.

Imprisonment rates per 100,000 of population by ethnicity[1]


based on ethnicity


White 130

Black 680

Mixed 370

Asian 180

Chinese 50

United States of America

 based on ethnicity


White 412

Hispanics 742

Blacks 2,290

Western Australia

 based on overall population



Western Australia



Imprisonment rate for adult Aboriginals 2,483


 based on overall population






Imprisonment rate for Adult Aboriginals 1,720

As a 2010 parliamentary report highlighted that the effectiveness of prison as a deterrent is called into question when:

  • The high, if not worsening, recidivism rates for particular groups of offenders are examined;
  • The increasing cost to our justice system and therefore the taxpayer, is accounted for

A collaborative interagency response is needed

If we as a society are to change the behaviours that are integral to many of these issues a high level of interagency collaboration is needed.  Without it, the ‘wicked problem’ that is the ongoing root cause of crime in high risk communities will remain unaddressed.

This root cause includes all the issues of Aboriginal disadvantage, including dispossession from land, cultural alienation, social dysfunction, family dysfunction, poor standards of health, higher than average levels of mental illness, high levels of substance abuse, domestic violence, poor school attendance rates, poor employment participation rates, poor standards of housing and overcrowding, and racism.  Assuming that sustainable change is what we’re chasing, the ‘building blocks for targeted interagency intervention endorsed by COAG are perhaps not a bad place to start.  These ‘building blocks’ include a focus on;

  • Early Childhood
  • Economic Participation
  • Governance and leadership
  • Health
  • Safe communities, and
  • Schooling or education

As the tombstones of many government interventions attest, single agency intervention alone is insufficient.  Agencies must be empowered and incentivised to intervene within a collaborative framework.

Ironically, this does not simply require a behavioural intervention in the targeted communities.  It needs a change in the behaviours of existing departments and service providers whose KPI’s , funding and reporting structures are strongly vertical.  A ‘wicked problem’ indeed.

[1] Adapted from the Community Development and Justice Standing Committee Report No ^ ‘Making our Prisons Work’ 2010

Photo courtesy Flickr User kIM DELram

What Successful Social Marketers Do Before Breakfast

Good social marketing takes planning and doing.

Albert Einstein once said “success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”.

In other words – ideas inspire, but execution leads to impact.  How are you moving from dreaming of social change to achieving it?

Move from Dreamer to Doer

In a recently published essay what most successful people do before breakfast, author Laura Vandekam discusses her research into the early morning habits of leaders and achievers. What she uncovers is how successful people flex their perspiration muscles at dawn’s early light to move from talking about progress to achieving it.

Build Habits

What do your mornings look like? Successful social marketers revel in their morning. At daybreak, Vandekam encourages people to focus on long-term goals versus short-term advances by focusing on one’s career, relationships and oneself during the wee morning hours. For social marketers, this means doing activities that:

Nurture your career

  • Engage your mind. Finally pick up that book you ordered that delves into social marketing theories and frameworks and give it a read. Manage your time to include time for reading and time for processing and reflecting.
  • Take action. Move from imagining ‘one day’ and work on purpose. Stop talking and start doing – even if that just means writing your thoughts on paper.
  • Add to your toolbox. To be the social marketer you need to be, you may need to learn new skills or expand current ones. Consider taking an online class.

Nurture your relationships

  • Touch base. Great social marketers surround themselves with a supportive ‘tribe’ – individuals who push, challenge, encourage and mentor them. Organise your contacts and set a goal to connect with a friend or colleagues once a week or even once a day.
  • Meet strangers. New revelations come from colliding with different worlds and new experiences. Visit another neighborhood during your morning walk or stop by a different coffee shop than the usual

Nurture yourself

  • Find clarity. You can only be the best for others when you are best for yourself. If you find yourself struggling with indecision or constant headaches, engage in yoga to relieve stress and find clarity.
  • Boost your endorphins. Along the same lines, remember that when you feel good – you look good; and when you look good – you feel good. Sometimes an endorphin lift through physical activity can be just what you need.
  • Get enough sleep. Many social marketers sacrifice sleep health by juggling competing priorities, relationships and needs. Working off of a full charge makes you more effective in many of life’s demands.

Take Off Your Floaties

Along the same lines, Walter Isaacon, who wrote Steve Jobs’ autobiography, reflected on the role of passion in a recent media panel:  “The important point is to not just follow your passion but [to do] something larger than yourself. It ain’t just about you and your damn passion”.

It’s time we take off our floaties and dive into the deep end. Let’s go!

Image Top: Courtesy Flickr user MrTopf | Featured Image: Courtesy Flickr user janaviemae