INTERVIEW — Applying Behavioural Science in Unilever
Richard Wright works on the innovative application of behavioural principles and cutting-edge behavioural measurements within Unilever as part of their Global Sustainability Team. In this interview, we discuss the use of behavioural science in Unilever and the need to create tools that are tailored to the company's needs.
BEHAVEN — Hi Richard! Could you please introduce yourself and your area of expertise?
RICHARD — Of course! I'm Richard Wright, I’m a psychologist with a PhD in unconscious learning and memory. I have been with Unilever since 1996 where a large part of my job has focused on behaviour measurement and behaviour change programmes related to social and environmental impact and market development. Most of my recent work is in low- and middle- income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Why and how did Unilever start to use behavioural science in the first place?
Unilever wanted to go beyond asking explicit questions through the focus groups and questionnaires. It realised that many product perceptions, beliefs and behaviours were likely to be implicit and difficult to talk about.
Unilever wanted to see whether psychology and neuroscience could provide better insights both on the communications and products themselves. Since that time, the commercial use of neuromarketing and cognitive science has become much more widespread. But Unilever was very much a pioneer in the area, conducting some of the earliest experiments in the mid 1990s.
In the early days, companies didn't know how best to use psychology and neuroscience. Some of the questions that were posed would have been better addressed by mind readers!
So, initially, it was about understanding where psychology could add most value to an organisation like Unilever. Coming from academia, I had to learn that the interests were quite different. In academia you can publish something because it's theoretically interesting. In a commercial setting, you've got to drive action, you've got to think about how you can help a marketer or product scientist do their job better.
How do you use behavioural science concretely and for what purposes?
Our Transform programme provides one of many ways that Unilever uses behavioural science for sustainable growth.
In Transform, we work with the UK Government and EY to support social enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These enterprises develop new products and services that help meet low-income household needs; while addressing economic, social, and environmental challenges. Helping them to scale is beneficial for both Unilever and the start-ups themselves.
Let’s take a concrete example of where we want to help somebody wash their hands before they feed their child. To drive behaviour change, we can improve the supply of soap through providing credit to shopkeepers, and training them to use the credit effectively to improve their stocking. We also need to increase demand — promoting consumer use of soap will increase consumption and improve the shopkeepers’ sales. So, behaviour change is fundamental to meeting low-income household needs.
However, across my programme, we not only work to help people wash their hands, but we also want to change other behaviours that contribute to sustainable living — providing access to good drinking water, nutritional food and information on family planning, etc.
Does your work focus only on behavioural changes for the products Unilever sells?
We have many behavioural challenges that are relevant to our products. For instance, good nutrition, hand washing, teeth cleaning, recycling and reusing plastic packaging. Even so, we are aware that our impacts need to be broader than just the ones provided by our products.
In fact, a product-specific behaviour change may not even be the first one a Transform project tackles. I encourage a ‘player first’ approach, where we understand what households need most and provide this. This is the ‘foot in the door’ behaviour — the most important and relevant need that will create engagement and provide the maximum benefit. Of course, I remain interested how changing these ‘foot in the door’ behaviours can be connected to increased supply and demand for Unilever products.
Let me give you the concrete example of how this worked in Project Zayohub. In rural Zambia, a long drought had led to crop failures. People couldn’t even afford soap but needed to earn money to buy food. So, we did not lead with hand-washing, or any other product-specific behaviour. Instead, Zayohub provided village women with the microfinance they needed to fund their business ideas. The creativity and imagination of the women led to many new economic activities. One consequence was that the women set up a small, weekly market: one of the stalls at this market was selling soap — improving the supply of hand-washing brands.
So, lead with a ‘foot-in-the-door’ offering. Find out and meet your customers’ immediate concerns and they will engage. Even if it is not your priority behaviour change, a ‘player first’ approach will create the initial engagement. This may directly lead to positive outcomes, that are relevant to your interests, or at least ensure that they engage when you go back with further offerings.
Could you tell us more about Unilever’s ‘5 Levers of Change’?
The ‘5 Levers of Change’ was my team’s attempt to ‘industrialise behaviour change’. In Unilever, it is principally the marketeers that drive behaviour change. They work across many markets and brands across the world. However, Unilever only had a small group of behavioural science experts, who couldn’t possibly meet the total organisational needs.
Back in 2004, to democratise behaviour change in Unilever, it was necessary to integrate behavioural principles into a simple planning process that could be implemented by marketing teams and without requiring an expert to be in the room.
So the ‘5 Levers of Change’ was created for the many occasions when projects require a new communication, or innovation, to drive behavioural change. It helps the team define their behavioural challenges and then apply behavioural principles (the ‘5 levers’).
My attempt to industrialise behaviour change highlights the large gap I saw between academic theory and industrial practice. The 5 ‘levers’ attempted to bridge that gap, enabling a marketeer to embed insights from behavioural science into a communication. The ‘5 Levers’ isn’t perfect and it shares many properties with subsequent frameworks (such as COM-B or EAST) but it improves the behaviour change capacity of a large organisation.
What are the challenges that you think need to be overcome in the context of encouraging better behaviours e.g. health behaviours, pro-environmental, etc.?
To meet the economic, social and environmental needs of our world, we need to change a multiplicity of behaviours on a scale never seen before in history. Behavioural science is, of course, critical. But behavioural scientists need to help organisations (governments, NGOs and businesses) make interventions more cost-effective. This will require thinking beyond single behaviours.
We need interventions that lead to fundamental changes in lifestyles or markets. We're not going to save the world nudge by nudge, behaviour by behaviour. We need fundamental behavioural change across multiple areas to create a larger impact.
If my analysis is correct, then the main problem facing behavioural scientists is one of ‘channel design’ not theory development. A ‘channel’ is the medium that we use to change behaviour. It could be a TV or radio advert, an in-person educational campaign, or a digital intervention delivered didactically or through social media. It can even be an innovation that shapes behaviour, such as a mobile phone or a toilet.
Channels need to be designed to have a high bandwidth. The new business models we help develop in Transform go beyond single behaviours. This can provide high bandwidth channels. For instance, the long-term, trust relationships between small shopkeepers and their customers can allow for effective communications and improved supply over many years. If we can bring the best of behavioural theory to making these kinds of relationships work, then we have a powerful way of bringing about many significant behavioural changes, where the need is great.
So should we be focusing on helping people change from within as opposed to designing small, external nudges?
Particularly where we can’t develop high bandwidth channels, I believe that we should be aiming to influence the precursors of behaviour rather than targeting specific behaviours. Taking the COM-B model, if we change ‘Capabilities’, ‘Opportunities’ or ‘Motivations’ then, theoretically, we can influence many behaviours.
For much of my work on sustainability, we focus on motivations. A particular exciting and rich area is the rather old, unfashionable topic of ‘social identity’. Social identities, and the social groups we belong to, are hugely influential in our decisions. If you see yourself as a person who wants to protect the world, you will find ways of doing so.
Could we use behavioural science to promote changes in identity?
The work of Tajfel and colleagues showed not only that identities were very pliable but also that group membership highly influenced behaviour. Members of a social group were more likely to behave in ways consistent with the group and in ways that increased their status within the group.
Further, since Tajfel’s time, the creation of social media platforms now allows groups to form more easily and for people to make their own behaviour more visible than ever before. We need to help form pro-sustainability groups that create positive norms and encourage the display of positive behaviours within the group.
However, my concern is whether these real-world interventions appeal to those wishing to publish in journals. They are messy and uncontrolled — their specific nature being determined by the formation and behaviour of the group. This makes them more difficult to characterise and less attractive to those wishing to publish in the top journals.
Who would be responsible for translating the science to something more digestible that people can use?
I think it’s the responsibility of people like me and organisations such as yourself! While it’s not my job to educate clients about theories in psychology, I need to make their use accessible to the practitioner. I find it useful to provide examples of how theories have been translated into practice and how they can relate to the problem they want to address.
Also, for complex behavioural systems, I find that it is important to help teams create ‘theories of change’. These relate your intervention (inputs) to short-term effects (outputs), and how these lead to long-term (outcomes). For instance, a simplistic example of a theory of change, relates the use of communications that promote improvements in diet and exercise (inputs), to lifestyle change (outputs) and reductions in obesity and ill-health (outcomes).
A well-constructed theory of change will ensure that the team identifies all the inputs they need to achieve success and appreciate the assumptions they are making about causal relationships between inputs, outputs and outcomes.
Behavioural science has grown immensely over the last decade. How has this impacted the way in which Unilever utilises the science’s methods and tools?
Over the years, behavioural science has increasingly emphasised the importance of randomised control trials (RCTs). However, I feel that RCTs were designed for pharmaceutical research and are often an inappropriate way of testing behavioural science interventions.
For behavioural science, it is often impossible to create ‘double-blind’ conditions where the implementer and the participant are unaware of whether the participant has been allocated to the experimental or control condition. However, for me, the bigger problem is that most RCTs require discrete, time-bound interventions with participants who are randomly allocated to conditions. These conditions are a million miles away from my own work. I work on diffuse, chronic interventions with consumers, who self-select.
So, if we see RCTs as providing a gold standard in behavioural science, this means that the method of your measurement will constrain your intervention. RCTs may be useful when an intervention involves changing a single word or phrase in a letter. However, if your goal is to improve hand-washing in a large African city, entrepreneurship among youths, or long-term energy use then the RCTs is not my methodology of choice.
I do worry that where behavioural scientists are trying to develop theoretical and measurement rigour, by advocating the use of better characterised interventions that are evaluated through RCTs, we are moving the area away from some of the more important challenges that we can help solve.
Are there any initiatives that you are aware of and you can talk about within Unilever that use behavioural science insights for pro-environmental outcomes?
So, I think I’d like to mention Project Zayohub again. Primarily, this was an economic and social project. We created community centres, provided microfinance, and rented solar lights and bicycles to build up the village economy. And by doing this, we displaced activities that people were forced to practice in dire economic circumstances: tree-burning for charcoal (deforestation), poaching, and unsustainable fishing. By addressing poverty, we also addressed associated climate change and sustainability challenges.
Do you have any suggestions of experts, key papers or books on behavioural science that you think would be worth sharing with our readers?
I'm inspired by the works of Muhammad Yunus which emphasise enabling behaviour change rather than telling people what to do or how to change their behaviour from your perspective. A Harvard Business Review chapter on social identity and brands by Guy Champniss and co-authors is very insightful, although it’s not a conventional academic piece of content. I also like Cialdini’s work on the science of persuasion. There is a short 11-minute video that I often use in my projects. It focuses on the six elements of persuasion.
‘Why your customers’ social identities matter’, Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2015/01/why-your-customers-social-identities-matter
Muhammad Yunus: https://www.muhammadyunus.org
‘Science of Persuasion’, Robert Cialdini: https://youtu.be/kv0sOX6Alrk