The Annual—2020: Ogilvy's Yearly Behavioral Science Collection
The following is the introduction to The Annual—2019-2020 and is written by Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK. Click here to download and read The Annual—2019-2020.
On the following pages are many of our proudest moments from the past year. There is one moment, however, that I wish I could forget. This was a chance comment I made in autumn 2019 when meeting a senior marketer from a large video conferencing firm on her visit to the UK. We had all spent a few hours chatting on the balcony of Sea Containers House, discussing the various persistent behavioural obstacles to the wider adoption of video calling. As she was leaving, I happened to add in passing, “Of course, what you really need is a wide-scale transport strike or a minor pandemic to accelerate adoption.” I wince every time I think of this.
But in some ways, this last year has been a valuable lesson for us all. For it teaches us two things, firstly how important behaviour change is – but secondly how much we still have to learn.
At one level, all businesses and governments have had a crash course in understanding the importance of behaviour. Suddenly almost every business question is ultimately a behavioural question. It is no longer safe to assume that demand will smoothly follow anticipated trends, or that the patterns of demand will be fairly similar from one year to the next.
Two years ago, if you were an airline or a travel business, your boardroom discussion probably revolved around how to hedge fuel prices; now, the question on everyone's lips is, “How on earth do we get people back on our planes? And will passengers soon return in the previous volumes?”
This presents an opportunity for all of us in the business of applying behavioural science: but the pandemic, with the sudden and often lasting effects it has driven, also teaches us how much we still have to learn. In particular the events of the last year have taught us that some new behaviours can only be effected if everybody changes behaviour at once.
To date, most behavioural research has focused on changing behaviour at an individual level. This remains vitally important and at times highly effective. Just as a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, a change in collective behaviour often starts with a single nudge. But at the same time, the pandemic reminds us just how how much of behaviour is driven by social context - in particular by the norms set by other people. Just as there are many technologies which never deliver their value until they're adopted by a critical mass of people - the fax machine, or email, for example - so there are behaviours which will never really stick until you can get a significant number of other people to adopt them.
Absent a pandemic, creating new norms is difficult. We all need to understand much better the kind of network dynamics through which behaviours spread from small to large groups of people until they become a default. Understanding this will be critical to our work over the next five years. The future belongs to the people who are first to understand what my New York colleague Chris Graves calls “the real why, and the hidden who” of human decision making.
About 20 years ago, Philip Kotler remarked that the future problems of business was not so much a shortage of products. It was a shortage of customers. Translated for the 21st century, you might recast these words to say that what the world needs is not more products or more technology: instead what it needs is more intelligent, better informed demand. We already have good solar panels. The problem is getting people to put them on the roof. The pandemic has been a valuable reminder that many modern political and economic problems are really behavioural problems in disguise.
The Annual is led by the Behavioural Science Practice at Ogilvy Consulting.