Purposeful behaviour change

Often change is something that takes place frustratingly slowly as we wait for new behaviours or attitudes to become acceptable.  But sometimes we are forced to see the way our behaviours reflect a set of underlying values and we are suddenly uncomfortable. At these points, change can come very quickly indeed as we strive to ensure our behaviour is consistent with the broader goals we may have.

We were not expecting COVID-19 to arrive. As is the case with any major event, we might have expected the possibility of it arriving  at some point in our lives but none of us were expecting it at this point.   The impact that COVID-19 has had on our social, cultural, financial and personal lives has been immense. 

The age of unfreezing

The psychologist Kurt Lewin talked about the way in which change requires us to first ‘unfreeze’ our mental landscapes.  If we remain fixed in the way we approach the world then we leave no opportunity for change.  But of course, with COVID, change was imposed on us.  Suddenly we have had social distancing, working from home, talking to our doctor by videocall and having to navigate, at times, unreliable grocery supplies.  All the routines we had acquired to manage our world were no longer relevant, as they offered us mastery of a world that no longer existed.  We were collectively and rapidly ‘unfrozen’, to navigate a very fluid situation.   

Of course, we often see this in peoples personal lives.  When a sudden tragedy befalls someone, they have a period where they are struggling to adapt.  Someone who suffers a bereavement, loses their job, has a relationship breakdown; these are all instances where sudden and often unanticipated change has occurred and often leads to a period of intense re-evaluation and adjustment. 

Rethinking our lives

Of course, when things ‘unfreeze’ we cannot always predict what will change.   When our once rigid structures that guide how we see the world fall away, we have a period where we can be alert and open to new ways of seeing the world and living our lives.  Indeed, recent polling by Ipsos suggested that a startling 42% of people globally were considering making major changes to their lives.  A key part of this is rethinking what is valuable to us.  As Agnes Callard points out in her recent book about change, ‘Aspiration’, “Valuing involves more than caring: when we value something we also evaluate it as in some way good or worth caring about.”  In other words, our values shape what we choose to engage with, they motivate us to shape our behaviours in relation to it.

This suggests we live in a way that is, generally, congruent with our values, otherwise we feel an uncomfortable dissonance.  But to help facilitate this we can engage in what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls  ‘blindspots of weakness’.  He cites these as potentially including prison system, our institutionalization, and isolation of the elderly, our destruction of the environment and our industrial meat production.  We notice these problematic areas but we fail to act on them.  COVID-19 has has given focus to these issues, exposing the fault lines in our society.  BAME communities and the poor are much more likely to suffer fatal consequences from the virus than other groups.  Exposing these longstanding injustices in such a direct and painful way has given the BLM social justice movement a huge surge of support and widespread focus on the way these marginalised groups are treated (as illustrated by the huge reaction to the death of George Flloyd).

And we can also see the way it has created question marks about equal choices in education and housing as well as focusing people on the importance of family and friends, health and wellbeing, the state of the world and climate emergency. 

So perhaps no surprise that people are evaluating their lives, re-considering what they value and importantly how they might want to change their way of living.  On that basis, this becomes what we might want to call a ‘behaviour change’ question – if what we value is changing then this flows through into what we do.  Just having values that you care about are not enough, people want these to result in changed behaviour.  We can call this purposeful behaviour.

Brand purpose is different to purposeful behaviour

It might be tempting at this point to point to the discussion around ‘brand purpose’.  This is the notion that consumers prefer to spend money with brands that share their values and beliefs.  And there are many examples of ways in which brands have fought to illustrate this through their campaigns such as Nike’s with Kaepernick.  However, Mark Ritson, adjunct professor at Melbourne Business School disagrees, saying: “Patently, the whole concept of brand purpose is moronic. I do not want Starbucks telling me about race relations and world peace – I want it to serve me a decent coffee in pleasant locations.” 

The degree to which brand purpose is something that shapes behaviour is certainly a live issue but different to what we are talking about here.  Brand purpose does of course help you behave in a way that is congruent with your values but the ‘purpose’ revolves around the brand rather than the individual.  Brands as facilitators of purposeful behaviours moves it on a bit; here the purpose in on the way the individual is able to enact behaviours in the world, with the support of brands. 

Enacting purposeful behaviour

As we all know from failed New Year resolutions, changing behaviour is not always easy.  People often have a sense that they want to change but they do not always have a clear sense of how they can enact change.  If, for example, we have a renewed focus on health and wellbeing, then where do we start?  If we want to take tangible steps to address racial injustice then what can you tangibly do?  And if we start new behaviours how can we get help to maintain them?

There is a range of sources of guidance for people on ways to enact purposeful behaviour.  Traditionally these have been through institutions such as newspapers, doctors, politicians, banks and so on.  But two themes have fundamentally changed that landscape.  First, many segments of society are now less attached to guidance from these sorts of institutional figures than they once were.  Alongside this, we are seeing a real willingness to consider that brands may have a role to play.  At one time we may have thought of brands as merely useful short-hands to guide choices between the options available; they would offer useful cues relating to price, quality and so on.

Today brands have a much wider role to play in peoples’ lives, aligning with values more holistically not simply for cues relating to product choice but as a way by which an individual seeks to reflect and build their identity. No wonder then, in other polling by Ipsos, 72% of people say that brands have a responsibility to ‘offer aid’ during the coronavirus crisis and 71% say they are ‘interested in hearing from brands that can help them navigate the crisis’.

Another key trend which is relevant here is the way in which much behaviour has moved into a digital environment.  Activities which may previously have been face to face, such as shopping, exercising, entertainment are now increasingly conducted online.  This means that the mechanisms to support enacting purposeful behaviour is increasingly in place. It is much easier to faciliate change when there is a two way channel.

Making purposeful behaviour change happen

A place where these strands can be brought together is in what is referred to as ‘phygital’, essentially the way that brands are integrating physical and digital customer experiences.    This is a concept that has been around for a while, as brands not only offer more integrated multichannel offers but seek to give their physical products a digital ‘’wrapper’.  For sometime, we have been able to look at products online before buying and picking up in store but most physical products now will be accompanied by online support in the form of access to information and resources.

But the current outcomes of these activities for brands typiclly continue to be the purchase of their products or services; whilst we cannot be so naive to suggest this is not part of the solution, there are surely ways in which brands can do more to facilitate purposeful behaviours.  This is the mental shift that is needed – brands have more to gain by facilitating purposeful outcomes beyond their product.  Of course the product can be part of this but it is not the whole story.

We are familiar with the model where a brand aims to help people make changes to their health and wellbeing by offering access to a website that tells them about the benefits of their product alongside other health related information.  While this may be helpful, it is only a first step to help people to change, to enact behaviour that reflects their values.  The real opportunity for brands goes beyond this, encouraging wider purposeful outcomes.

The classic example of brands in this space is Nike, which offers access to workouts, expert guidance & advice, alongside tracking of your physical activity.  There are very clear ways here in which the brand is helping to meet consumers wellbeing goals but at the same time integrating it with their store (where you can spend the points you accumulated through your activity).

The point is that, as we already know, a digital environment offers a platform that facilitates an relationship in a way that a physical product alone never can.  Of course there are ways in which this can be addressed extent by encouraging people to your online presence but unless this is an integral part of the offer then take-up is typically very low.  The more it is woven into the fabric of the product (or service) that is being sold, the more engaging the relationship and the greater the opportunity to help facilitate purposeful behaviour change.

This is not without all manner of possible privacy issues that needs to be fully identified and understood (and will be the topic of another essay).


Much has been written about brand purpose, the way in which brands can align with the values and beliefs of their customers.  While this seems an increasingly necessary consideration, more can be done.  For many, brands are simply not of sufficient importance in their lives for this to be a particularly important consideration of the way they enact their purposeful goals.

By looking at the issue of purpose from the consumer’s perspective, we can perhaps see this as a fairly mild form of purposeful behaviour change.  Of course, if a consumer chooses to buy an ethically produced cereal bar from you rather than a non-ethically produced bar from a competitor then that does mean they have enacted purposeful behaviour.  But in the context of consumers seeking to fundamentally change their lives we could say that this is just one part of what consumers are likely seeking to do.

We are living in the age of the ‘unfreezing’ of the way in which people navigate the world and seek that their values are reflected in their behaviour.  But as we all know, it can be difficult and frustrating to change behaviour.  As other gatekeeper institutions have fallen away, brands are increasingly looked to for guidance and support to enact behaviours that help us meet purposeful goals. 

The challenge for brand strategists is for themselves to unthaw they way in which they think.  Right now, many see the role of the brand in changing behaviour as simply to encourage more people to buy their brand more often, perhaps buying more premium versions and to persuade those that buy competitor brands to switch.  But brands have the opportunity to consider extending their business model.  The behaviour change that needs enacting is broader than this narrow inward facing conceptualisation – rather it is one which encourages wider behaviour change.  And while this may seem like a bold move, we can see that when it has taken place (such as Nike) there are very real positive outcomes not only for consumers but for the brands themselves too.

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Colin Strong is Head of Behavioural Science at Ipsos. In his role he works with a wide range of brands and public sector organisations to combine market research with behavioural science, creating new and innovative solutions to long standing strategy and policy challenges. His career has been spent largely in market research, with much of it at GfK where he was MD of the UK Technology division. As such he has a focus on consulting on the way in which technology disrupts markets, creating new challenges and opportunities but also how customer data can be used to develop new techniques for consumer insights. Colin is author of Humanizing Big Data which sets out a new agenda for the way in which more value can be leveraged from the rapidly emerging data economy. Colin is a regular speaker and writer on the philosophy and practice of consumer insight.

Categories COVID-19, Marketing, SustainabilityTags , ,