Published: 14 November 2011

What makes an organisation good at changing behaviour?

The government has embraced behaviour change and is emphasising the need to encourage individuals to take the actions that benefit themselves and society, rather than a reliance on expensive state interventions.

It may be the flavour of the month for the policy makers, but hasn’t the voluntary sector always sought to encourage audiences to take beneficial actions: to use services, improve their health, protect the environment, give donations, start volunteering or lobby politicians?

Indeed so, but in the words of US President Harry S. Truman, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts". While behaviour change might be an objective we recognise, it is worth re-considering how our organisational and strategic approach to marketing helps us achieve it.

My work within different sectors has revealed common characteristics of organisations that successfully use marketing to change behaviour – the skills, structures and practices they adopt to effectively encourage their audiences to take action. 

Turning awareness into action 

One of those characteristics is that such organisations tend to have a broader definition of, and role for, marketing. Their ethos is “customer knows best” rather than “we know best” and they see marketing as any activity that understands customer needs, develops and promotes products and services to meet those needs, and builds on-going relationships. Rather than limiting marketing to “promotion” and deploying marketing skills towards the final stages of a project when a communications plan or materials are required, they ensure marketing (ie the customer perspective) is used throughout their strategic and operational planning process.

A consequence of this understanding is the recognition that raising awareness alone does not change behaviour. In health we have spent too long churning out information, telling our audiences what to do in the belief that if they only knew how to be healthier they would change their lifestyles or make better choices. There is, for example, very high awareness of the “five a day” message, yet vegetable sales are falling – awareness does not mean action.

Understanding our audiences 

Often the reason our audiences may not take the action we want is not that they don’t know what is good, but that we don’t understand them well enough to give them the means to take action, make it easy for them to do, or provide a benefit they value.

So, just like the government, as charities we are also looking to encourage people to change their behaviour. But it may be a case of “physician, heal thyself”: we need to look inside our organisations before we try and change others. We can start by asking these questions: Do we limit our use of marketing skills to promotion? Do we have the processes in place to ensure the customer is represented throughout the planning process? Do we strive to “raise awareness” when that might not lead to action? And, most importantly of all, how well do we really understand our customers?


Richard Donaldson, director, Cause Action

Richard has over fifteen years' experience of transforming the performance of organisations through devising successful, customer orientated marketing and behaviour change strategies that deliver results.