Behaviour ChangeSustainable Lifestyles

The race is on: creativity vs catastrophe

In response to the latest IPCC report, Futerra Group CEO Lucy Shea explores three ways to encourage behaviour change for better.

14.06.22Lucy Shea

I was once a smoker. For many years I stopped and started, but the quitting never stuck. That was until my friend and colleague, Solitaire Townsend, cleverly brainwashed me – and I gave up without even realising it.

Over the course of a few months, she used some subtle behaviour change tactics to influence my thinking.

She said three things that have now transformed the health of my lungs. First, “now you have a new boyfriend, is it a good time to stop smoking?”. She knew that ‘transition zones’ are times when our life is changing anyway, so our habits are naturally in flux. Secondly, “it’s funny, have you noticed no one else in our company smokes any more?” This is ‘social proof’: our drive to be like others. And lastly, she casually mentioned that “you don’t strike me as a smoker”. This, in psychology speak, is ‘symbolic self-completion’ – in other words, she got me to identify as being a non-smoker.

I am proof – if it were needed – that behavioural change tactics work. But at Futerra, we already knew this, because we had learned these tactics from observing how successful campaigns worked their magic. We had scoured the creative world to find examples of communications strategies that had impact, from environmentalism to health to crime. The tactics that helped me stop smoking, plus some others, have changed the shape of societies around the world.

Understanding behavioural change today is more important than at any other moment in history. In fact, according to theIPCC report, behavioural change has the potential to reduce global emissions by 40-70% by 2050. Because how we live, work, eat and travel influences the health of the planet. We are living in the Anthropocene, the geological age in which human activity is the dominant influence on the climate and the environment. It’s scary to know that we are materially changing the Earth – but it’s also empowering. If our behaviour can harm the planet, then our behaviour can also help it. Switching from harm to help is, of course, where behavioural change comes in. If you’re a marketer, that means you.

H.G. Wells once wrote that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”, but according to science…this isn’t quite true. Being in the know won’t help us avoid catastrophe. I was well aware that smoking was damaging my health, but it didn’t help me quit. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell tells us that on an individual level, many smokers choose to continue smoking despite overestimating the dire consequences of their habit.

So if knowledge can’t rival catastrophe, what can?


Specifically, creative use of the kinds of behaviour change tactics that helped me. The IPCC report tells us that, in cases of societal transitions, there is evidence that societies guided the processes of shifting preferences. “Different factors influence individual motivation and capacity for change, including psychological variables such as awareness, perceived risk, subjective and social norms, values, and perceived behavioural control.” In short, what we see and how we think, influences how we act.

"behavioural change has the potential to reduce global emissions by 40-70% by 2050."

Here are three ways you can creatively harness psychology – and change the world in the process.

Time it right

Think carefully and creatively about timing. Find your customers’ ‘transition zones’: when they have just had a baby, moved house, got a new job, retired. Even the change of seasons or payday can be a transition zone. When their habits are fluid, how can you help them introduce a new one that could positively impact society or the planet?

A great example of this is Zipcar. When kids leave home and go to college, they don’t always have their own car – but they need one. Zipcar homed in on this big moment of life transition, to focus their marketing on 250 college campuses across the U.S.. They saw their revenue rise 30%.


The IPCC report suggests that social influencers and thought leaders can increase the adoption of behaviours, and lifestyles. In fact, between it only takes between 10% and 30% of committed individuals to set new social norms.

We might like to think of ourselves as renegades who think differently from everyone else. But really, humans are driven to fit in – to do what others do. We like to be part of the group, and we don’t like to feel ‘weird’. Making new behaviours feel normal is the great talent of advertisers, of course. They do this through ‘social proof’. Can your brand use social proof to make a pro-social or pro-environmental behaviour feel more visible and normal?

Coca Cola did this brilliantly when they promised to crown Israel’s most active recycler the Recycling King. They uploaded the location of 10,000 recycling bins across the country to Facebook Places. People could check in and upload a photo of themselves recycling – and thousands did. Suddenly, finding a recycling bin and using it was normal.

Find the fun

People will always make more time for pleasure and leisure than they will for chores. Can your brand make sustainable behaviours feel fun? Can you create some glamour, inject some humour, play with some silliness?

I feel passionately about this, so I wanted to make buying no new clothes feel chic and exciting. I launched Swishing: an evening where women bring at least one item of clothing they’d be proud to pass on, and spend the evening choosing something ‘new’ to take home – all with a glass of bubbly. Thousands of Swishing parties happen every year, from Bedford to Brazil.

Psychology has informed brands’ creative communications since brands existed. From Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, cleverly positioning cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’ representing women’s rights in 1929, to oil companies shifting responsibility to consumers by popularising the concept of a personal carbon footprint in the 2000s. To date, these powerful mechanisms have been used to convince people to buy more. But the world is changing, and our industry with it. Today, your customers want to live more sustainable lifestyles and be part of a beautiful future. How will your creativity help them do it?


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