Influence the unwritten rules that shape society

Influence the unwritten rules that shape society

An increase in drink-drive casualties holds a lesson for all marketers about the power of social norms.

For most of us, our work isn’t, thankfully, a matter of life and death. 

So recent figures revealing that drink-drive casualties are now at their highest levels in eight years might feel personally troubling but professionally irrelevant to most marketers.

After all, communications don’t seem to be to blame. The Department for Transport has pointed out that its "Mates matter" campaign (pictured, above) has successfully targeted young drivers.

However, history tells us that just talking to the young men who drink then drive is not enough. The campaigns work best when they talk to society as a whole.

That truth lay behind the major pivot in drink-drive advertising strategy in the late 1980s – from targeting drink-drivers to targeting society as a whole. Or as the transport minister at the time put it: "From catching the fish to changing the water in which the fish swim." The ambition was to create nothing short of societal disgust for drink-driving. And it had profound effects on behaviour.

Young drivers today are the first in a generation who have not grown up surrounded by similar drink-drive campaigns. They are the first in a generation to have a weaker sense of the societal disapproval for drink-driving.

It’s not fair to criticise the DfT, as the "Mates matter" campaign aims to get people to stop their friends from drink-driving and austerity has severely limited government budgets.

But there’s an important lesson here for all advertisers. At a time when technology allows us to target individuals ever-more precisely, we mustn’t forget to also create the collective, shared, social understanding of brands that is so powerfully effective. 

So how can we do that? In his recent book How Change Happens, Cass Sunstein (the man who took the idea of nudging mainstream) turns his attention to social norms. Humans are social creatures and norms are the unwritten rules guiding our behaviour that we learn from each other. Everything we do is heavily influenced by what others do; what we buy, wear, eat and drink. (And, yes, whether we drive afterwards.)

Sunstein shows that it’s not easy to change a norm, but if you succeed you can unleash substantial and rapid social change. He coins the term "norm entrepreneur" for individuals who challenge and change society’s norms and therefore behaviour.

Brands should be norm entrepreneurs too.

Take Apple. As Richard Shotton points out in his splendid book The Choice Factory, the real commercial genius of Apple’s iPod launch lay not in its unmatched product design but in those distinctive white headphones that made usage so highly visible. This made Apple look like the market leader long before it was, supercharging popularity. A self-fulfilling prophecy of a strategy.

At launch, Magners pulled off a similar coup by being the first cider served over ice. A distinctive and visible ritual created the impression that everyone was drinking the brand.

Communications can also establish or reinforce social norms. That’s why brands proudly proclaim that they are the world’s favourite airline or that eight out of 10 cats prefer them. Less explicit approaches work too. In the early 2000s, most people still liked eating McDonald’s, but wondered how socially acceptable it was to be seen eating there. Advertising (created by my agency Leo Burnett) successfully reassured consumers by showing that "people like me" were eating there in droves.

This power of broad-reach media to influence social norms has always been a great strength. Media was social way before social media. But it’s something we overlook all too often.

So don’t just create campaigns that target people one by one. Create campaigns that influence the unwritten social rules that guide everyone. Shine a light on your brand’s popularity and make it more popular still.

Josh Bullmore is chief strategy officer at Leo Burnett London

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