Tuesday 23 April 2013

The New Communications

A few years back my company was accused by a deeply misguided business journalist as not operating in the 'real economy'. Our focus on social goals, environmental issues and arts and culture clearly got him riled. He saw the impending age of austerity and public sector cuts as a signal that an agency like ours would be certain to fail.

The debt-fuelled, hyper-consumption based 'real economy' was about to falter, fold his magazine and put him out of a job, but regardless of his frame of reference it was clear that he didn't 'get' the idea that there was a different world of communications out there.

So it's time to establish more clearly the new communications. 

What's it about? It's the critical revelation that you can sell great ideas and urgent issues of our time just as effectively and with as much flair as you can sell fast moving consumer goods. The campaigns and communications that emerge from the new communications are progressive, honest and effective. They can be energy campaigns that save money on bills, they can be recruitment campaigns for volunteers, carers or civic champions, they can raise money, they can get you off the sofa and out into a nature reserve; the new communications may even make you feel differently about the town, city or village where you live.

It's time to explode the idea that creative communications, by which I mean everything from advertising to direct marketing, media relations, social media campaigns and even the odd flash mob, is purely about selling stuff that we don’t really need.

The conventional ‘Mad Men’ world of consumer marketing is just one aspect of human communications. What other kinds of communications do we messy but wonderful humans indulge in?

There’s gossip, chatter with friends or colleagues and keeping up with family or loved ones, increasingly a strand of communications that is served through social media channels like Facebook or Twitter. There are more formal channels too. There’s public information - what time does the library open? How can I learn to swim? What day will my wheelie bin be emptied? After that there's social marketing. Much of this is health related (get fit, stop smoking, drink less) but it can also cover social calls to action, such as fostering a child, or changes in environmental behaviour.

Local communities communicate in their own distinctive way, too. Engagement at the community level is often overlooked as a critical part of communications. From the photocopied newsletter to online forums, street stalls or a notice pinned to a church door, local neighbourhoods can energise around an issue and then start to communicate.

There are political campaigns for both single issues and to get elected. There are social and environmental campaigns looking to exert change on politics, business or public opinion. Places communicate and brand or promote themselves, there is entertainment, fundraising, religious evangelism, even military propaganda - the ‘munitions of the mind’ - is a form of creative communications.

I've yet to land a brief that covers military propaganda but over the years my work's covered a good deal of the terrain above. My career in communications started, briefly, with journalism and then switched to campaigns around food and more specifically, vegetarianism. For six houmous-fueled years I was a campaigner and then campaigns director at the Vegetarian Society, convincing people the length and breadth of the land to dump meat products for ethical, environmental or health reasons.

It was while working at the Vegetarian Society that I realised that humour and not hectoring was slightly more effective in getting people to change their views or habits. This was a theme I'd return to many times over the next 15 years. Then I moved into working on sustainability and issues like climate change, and ten years ago set up Creative Concern, one of the UK’s first creative agencies dedicated to sustainability and social issues.

Today the Creative Concern portfolio of brands, media campaigns, films and digital projects covers a number of different and discrete areas of communication. Our team works on place promotion, community engagement, public information campaigns and, for a good deal of the time, on changing people's behaviour.

Our approach to behaviour change has a number of ‘rules’ or ‘themes’  which we apply and which we’ve shown to actually work over the last ten years. I’m going to run through some of those rules and then show a couple of campaigns where they’ve done the trick.

First of all, it’s really important to recognise that choices are emotional as much as they’re rational. This principle was established in probably one of the most famous ‘issues’ campaigns there’s ever been, the Crying Indian ad run by Keep America Beautiful in the early 70s. Iron Eyes Cody canoes up the Hudson River and then reaches landfall through a sea of litter. From the discarded drink cans and burger cartons the camera pans up to his face, down which a single tear runs. ‘People start pollution; people can stop it’ runs the voiceover. It set the standard and without the slightest hint of a ‘nudge’.

Next up is being ‘normal’. A change in behaviour has to be seen as something that regular folk can do rather than being solely the preserve of eco-vegan lefties like me. If naked cycling and body painting is your thing, for example, I think you’re very brave. I just doubt that as a campaign tactic it’s likely to get any potential new cyclists into the saddle.

The third rule we like to apply is social proofing and the notion that ‘everyone’s doing it’. We’ve shown this to work in our campaigns but one of the best and most persuasive examples is the ‘hotel towel experiment’ that was carried out by researchers at Chicago Business School and captured in their book ‘Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion’.

The research team worked with a local hotel and changed a proportion of the ‘Please re-use your towel’ signs in hotel bathrooms to read ‘The majority of people in this hotel tend to re-use their towels at least once during their stay’. Towel re-use went up by 26% in the rooms with the amended labels in. What’s even more fascinating is that when they changed them again to read ‘People in this room...’ the rate of re-use went up even higher, to 33% above the normal rate.

I don’t think this shows a ‘herd’ mentality at work, but more the idea that as a society we are contractarians, who will shift our behaviours if we think others are doing it too. As the Institute for Public Policy Research once put it, it’s about ‘I will if you will’.

Pride is another rule. Whether that’s pride of place or pride in your group, tribe or organisation, if you can attach pride to an appeal for change, you’ve got a better chance of success. A great example here is the ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ campaign. Run by the Texas Department for Transport it boasted some great copy lines: “If Texas was your mother, would you still litter?” Great work. The campaign reduced litter on Texan highways by 72% between 1986 and 1990.

Framing comes in next. The way you frame your pitch makes all the difference. In politics for example, framing the dismantling of massive parts of the public sector as ‘Big Society’ is a remarkably canny bit of framing. How you position your message in relation to the frame of reference of your audience is absolutely critical and politics is a great place to watch this play out. Are we ‘building sustainable communities’ or tackling ‘Broken Britain’? Depends on your frame.

Number six is fun. Famously the Fun Theory in Sweden has turned stairs into piano keys and litter bins into bottomless pits. Their latest wheeze is a Speed Camera Lottery where the fines from cars breaking the speed limit at one Stockholm intersection are entered into a lottery for those cars snapped going under the speed limit. They cut average speeds by over 20%. Fun is massively important, as is humour.

Rule seven is to take risks. Creative communications is a crowded marketplace. Every day you are deluged by thousands of messages that are both commercial and non-commercial. The average edition of the New York Times has more information in it than you would have received during an entire lifetime in the Seventeenth Century a data overload that Richard Saul Wurman documented powerfully in Information Anxiety.

Our heads are mashed with messages and we’re also a powerfully distracted species. Britain’s most popular Google search terms in 2011 were ‘Royal Wedding’, ‘iPhone5’ and ‘Fifa’. Also in the top ten were ‘Groupon’, ‘Adele’ and the terrifying ‘Rebecca Black’. For every person searching for ‘sustainability’ there are 51 looking for cheap flights or, inevitably, 152 furtling around looking for porn.

The combination of data deluge plus dubious distraction means that any ethical or behavioural change campaign needs to take a few creative risks to break through and grab some attention.

My final rule is to know your audience and understand what you’re asking them to do. I’m by nature a massive optimist and so one thing that gives me great hope is the fact that we’re not all evil wankers. Here’s some proof. If you look at models of altruism versus outright greed, there are a number of ways to break society down into groups. For example there’s a model based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that looks at pioneers, prospectors and settlers who exhibit varying levels of ethical behaviour, but at its most basic level around 10% of us are altruistic from the outset, while 25% are in the Clarkson camp of unabashed selfishness and 65% sit in a big, slightly dozy ‘consensual’ zone in the middle. In terms of behaviour change I like to think of these as ‘Would love to’, ‘Not on your nelly’ and ‘I will if you will’.

The critical thing in terms of audience understanding and pitch is that if you pitch something purely at the 10% you’re doomed to failure; if you get into a shouting match with the selfish bastards your similarly doomed; successful campaigns need to aim at the mass market, consensual majority and coax them into our altruistic camp.

And the fascinating thing is that even the selfish quarter will come onside once a consensus is established, they’d be too ashamed to do otherwise.

So that’s the theory. How does it work? There are few examples from our work.

First of all I’d like to cover humour. Since I first realised that scaring people with secret filming from inside abattoirs wasn’t the only way to convince them to go vegetarian, I’ve always thought a good gag goes down really well. It has the added benefit of showing that you don’t take yourself too seriously and that adopting your proposed change in behaviour will not render you as humourless as Tom├ís de Torquemada on a bad hair day.

My back catalogue here basically consists of rude vegetables. It’s not complicated; a small study came out showing that vegetarians had slightly more rigorous and rewarding sex lives until a slightly older age and quicker than you can say ‘tofu is the new viagra’ an ad campaign was born. Once I’d finished getting an artworker to add veins to a courgette we were away. Resulted in blanket media coverage, an hourly plug on Channel 4’s Big Breakfast and I had to appear on a strange sex plus lottery numbers show on Kelvin McKenzie’s LIVE TV Channel.

Fast forward to today and here’s an ad campaign we ran with Friends of the Earth across Manchester which even now gets referenced as one of the best of its kind. Cycling is up across the city by at least 10%, not all down to this ad, but it’s safe to say that the humourous tone increased the ad’s reach massively.

And humour led us to team up with a californian animator to create a campaign called ‘Get Me Toasty’ for energy efficiency and home insulation. Creating a giant, walking but not talking piece of toast has helped us recast home insulation as something you’d actually walk across the street to find out more about. So far the campaign’s generated 15,000 enquiries for free or low cost insulation, cutting loads of winter fuel bills and cutting carbon emissions right across Greater Manchester.

Social proofing was at the forefront of our mind as we crafted a campaign for the borough of Wrexham called ‘People Power’. We led with images of ordinary folk from Wrexham who were willing to take a small step - a pledge - to reduce their carbon emissions as the Council committed to massively cut their emissions too. The entire focus was on a shared effort and shared benefit. Across the Council alone they saw energy bills drop by 7% during the campaign period, saving around £25,000. The Wrexham campaign built on an earlier, pledge-based campaign we did across Greater Manchester called ‘Manchester is my Planet’ which again combined social proofing with small steps and in this case, civic pride, to recruit carbon pledges. Over 20,000 people signed up over the lifetime of the campaign.

My next example is a simple but effective example of reframing a proposition. The Northwest’s Fostering Forum asked us to run a campaign across television, radio and print to generate applications to become foster carers. We ran some research groups and discovered that the problem wasn’t feeling compassionate about kids that needed homes, the problem was that most people didn’t feel that they could be a foster parent, that somehow they wouldn’t fit the profile. So we ran a fostering campaign with no children in, just lots of real life fosterers from as many walks of life as possible, telling you that ‘You Can Foster’. The campaign overshot its target by 100% and over 3,000 applied to become foster carers.

My last example is less about behaviour change and more about the power of communications to build pride and belief in a community. We’ve been running a campaign for the last four years in a large area of Manchester called Wythenshawe. It’s an area that has plenty of social challenges but that also has loads going for it. For years it had been done down in the mass media as a class A example of ‘Broken Britain’. Our Real Lives Wythenshawe campaign, which includes a network of 100 community ambassadors, has reclaimed the news agenda and allowed the people of the area to build a more positive image of their area. In our finest hour, we organised mass activity in response to an ill-thought documentary by Sarah Ferguson called the ‘Duchess on the Estate’, which depicted the very worst that they could find in Wythenshawe.

Our campaign fought back and won national, widespread coverage as a result.

The examples above are just behavioural change but our team at Creative Concern have built place brands, run fundraising campaigns, launched wildlife reserves and communicated with the public around renewable energy schemes. We think this is the real work of creative communications, of the new communications.

If you ignore for a moment the fact that every second 28,000 people are searching the internet for porn, human communications, is a wonderful, diverse and powerful part of who we are and what we could become in the future. It takes in education, our individual passions and ideals, our connections with family and friends, our work and our playtime. Communications is a critical part of us, as individuals and as a society.

It’s not about selling, it’s about something bigger.

It’s about great people and good ideas. It’s about enlightenment. It’s about making people smile and its about making lives better.

This is the real world of communications and its my contention that in an age where austerity is still biting and where there may actually be no return to the days of rampant and unbridled consumerism, this kind of communications, for social good, will in fact be the norm in the months and years ahead.

This, for me is the future, and it’s the business that we’re in.

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