Following the rules: what brands can learn from Government efforts to keep us safe

Different experiences of COVID

I spent last week in South Wales. Staying with the family in a cottage in the Brecon Beacons and exploring the countryside lubricated with (socially distant) pub lunches and fuelled by cream teas. Very nice it was too. Much of our experience was similar to what we’d left behind at home. Shops were limiting the number of customers they were admitting. Hand sanitiser was everywhere. Cafes, restaurants and pubs had adopted a variety of practices to manage traffic through their premises and reduce their visitors need to touch. But, there was one crucial difference. Face masks. While, back in England face coverings have been required in shops since July 24th and in museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship since early August (link). In Wales, however, the advice has been different. While face coverings have been mandatory on public transport since July 27th (link), there has been a steadfast refusal to require them in shops. This lack of enforcement has, not surprisingly, translated into avoidance. People seem to be wearing face masks in England. In Wales they do not.

Living with rules

By and large, we are a society that abides by the law and follows the rules. Stereotypically at least, for example, we are prepared to queue, though we like to complain while we’re doing it! And so too with COVID. Though images of the crowds on Bournemouth beach or outside Soho’s watering holes may suggest otherwise, we Brits have been reasonably good at following the rules of lockdown.

Imperial College’s COVID-19 behaviour tracker demonstrates clearly that observation of several common-sense infection reduction strategies was very low until lockdown, when they were suddenly required. Since lockdown ended, they have remained high, though have been gradually declining. In the case of face masks, the situation was different – for most of lockdown they weren’t required but since the government advice changed, large numbers have now adopted their use, when in public places.

That is not to say that it has been a straightforward process. As with any behavioural change, compliance is built on a number of factors that work together depending on the context of the change. Such factors include the authority of those demanding the change, social conventions around compliance and default behaviours, fear of the consequences of non-compliance, clarity of understanding of the changes that are being demanded, an appreciation of why those changes are in the public interest, the ability to be able to adopt the changes (ideally as easily as possible).

Understanding the rules: the need for clarity

It is impossible to comply with instructions without a proper understanding of what is required. The need for clarity has been an ongoing challenge during COVID where understanding of the disease, ideas of how to best deal with it, and advice to the public have had to evolve.

By the end of lockdown, some 90% of the public felt that they had ‘clear idea’ of what they had to do, but as measures were eased they became less and less certain – only 45% of people in England now have a “broad understanding” of the rules, compared with 75% in Scotland and 61% in Wales, where rules have been changed at a different speed. In the words of The Telegraph “as restrictions have gradually eased due to a falling infection rate, “many people are more confused about the rules than before”. Many have attributed the lack of understanding to a lack of clarity and consistency within Government ranks, which may have undermined the instructions and the authority and credibility of those giving them – it is hard to convince people that a behaviour is critical if you keep changing the rules or the communication. Many have been particularly scathing about the communication skills being demonstrated:

“So, we are saying don’t go to work, go to work, don’t take public transport, go to work, don’t go to work. Stay indoors. If you can work from home go to work, don’t go to work, go outside, don’t go outside. And then we will or won’t, ah, something or other.” Comedian Matt Lucas mocking Boris Johnson’s COVID speech (May 11th)

Accepting the rules: the need for explanation and proof

Understanding what the Government was/is asking us to do is not enough. For many, they need to also to understand why the specific policy guidelines have been designed as they have, though there is also, of course, a danger of over-communication that can cause exhaustion amongst the audience and lead to messages being disregarded. Responsible broadcasters and media outlets around the world have made great efforts to support the objectives of their governments with a wave of articles, infographics and interviews designed to explain and demystify some of the new language (social distancing, r, superspreaders, covidiots, and so on) and practices.

Sadly though, not all media outlets are responsible. Clearly, even if you provide clear guidance on what to do and explain why it is important to do it, there will still be some people who don’t comply, potentially seeing some very dark motives behind the efforts. Rejection of the rationale behind the rules meant to protect us is seen in its most extreme form amongst the COVID Anti-Vaxxers, who believe either that vaccination is unproven, or, worse, that it is all part of some sinister global control system or commercial undertaking – some of the theories are summarised in the film Plandemic which spread around the world with alarming speed, reaching 8 million people on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in just over a week. Even Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton found himself on the wrong end of a social media backlash after sharing an anti-vaccination Instagram post (link).The net result of such misinformation is that up to one-third of people in UK may refuse a coronavirus vaccine if and when one is developed and made available. Given that the vaccination will only be effective if 70-90% of us have it, this refusal is clearly worrying on a societal level.

Following the rules: the playbook

If citizens understand the rules and if they accept the reasoning behind them the final step is to adopt the lifestyle changes necessary. When it comes to bringing together people and services there are several approaches being used:

  • Make changes as easy as possible to adopt: providing hand sanitiser at store entrances removes pressure on people to remember to bring their own. This taps into Reduction Bias – people will spend as little cognitive or behavioural effort as possible so making the ideal behaviour easy is key to getting people to comply
  • Provide constant reinforcement of the changes: single messages are easy to ignore, multiple messages get through. Feedback loops are key to ensuring people stay motivated – humans are increasingly engaged as they are made aware that their actions have consequences. Providing positive/negative feedback will teach people how to modify their behaviour accordingly
  • Give nudges: the pavement distance markers mean anyone not wishing to follow distancing must ignore a very powerful (and publicly visible) cue.
  • Leverage expertise: move the conversation away from politicians and towards scientific expertise, leveraging our innate Authority Bias – people are more likely to follow the advice of a legitimate authority figure who, in this instance this, would be medical specialists, the govt. the police, etc. This is why Chris Whitty (UK) and Anthony Fauci (US) have generally been more closely listened to on COVID matters than their political masters.
  • Make messaging around lifestyle changes positive not negative: people are more sensitive to losses than gains (Loss aversion), so reframing the negative experience of isolation as a positive, for example, by trying to find positives in isolation (such as having more time for yourself, catching up on reading, etc) will help.
  • Provide personal motivations: people are more likely to engage if they think a situation pertains to them. For the young, who perceive themselves to be at low risk from COVID, a strategy has been to encourage them to think of their parents and grandparents. Referencing specific cases about young people or people from localised areas is likely to make those targeted individuals pay attention.
  • Break harmful patterns: people have an internal preference for the way they currently behave (Status Quo bias). Disrupting this automatic behaviour is key to triggering change. For example, people are likely to evaluate the risk of one piece of non-distancing as very low (like the impact of smoking one cigarette) so it is important to help them assess the risks they are taking.

What does this mean for brands?

First and foremost, brands have to keep us safe. This is particularly true for brands that rely on in-person engagement with their customers. No matter how severely following the rules impacts on the bottom-line there can be no justification for compromising the wellbeing of customers or staff.

Secondly, it is possible to learn from these efforts to enforce lockdown and social distancing and apply those lessons to other tasks involving persuasion. Exactly the same psychology applies to other behavioural changes that brands are looking to encourage amongst consumers – trial of new products, trading up to more profitable choices, repeat purchasing and loyalty, to name but three.

So many brands jump straight to the endgame of communication and persuasion: buy my product, its great. But the lesson here is that communication around behavioural change is a stepwise journey, building from understanding to acceptance to action, and brands need to pay attention to all steps in the journey.

  • Make sure consumers fully understand the behaviour change you are asking them to make
  • Make sure they fully appreciate why you are asking them to make the change (from their point of view, not yours!)
  • Make it as easy as possible for them to make the change and stick to it

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited and Alex Baines of Walnut Unlimited