Opinion: Data-led storytelling through behavioural science

Things will never be the same, and while the new world is slowly adapting to this new normal, people will be creating their own new habits. But if we believe there is a one “normal” for everyone, then we are not considering the bigger picture.

Psychologically, there is an urgent inner battle with the new normal, and as such new behaviors and habits should change as well. We have the belief that people are emotional; that we are only "feeling machines", but that is not entirely true. One popular truth used to describe us humans, is that if we want to change what someone does, we need to change what they feel and not just what they think. Antonio Damasio, a renowned professor of neuroscience, noted that people are actually "feeling machines" that can think. With this understanding, the challenges brands face in light of the pandemic and beyond COVID-19, is the urgency on how to reach consumers that have formed their own "new normal".

Many people believe and have said that PR agencies will emerge stronger in this current climate and will have more value-added capabilities during the COVID-19 period. And as brands cancel advertising campaigns, offline activations and the production of the next television commercial, they will turn to PR as one of the more cost-efficient approaches and outputs to brand building, consumer engagement and corporate reputation management.

So the pressure and opportunity for PR agencies to inject a different kind of creativity in ideation and strategies has never been stronger. Not to mention the need to be fast, agile and nimble overall as well as embracing digital in a whole new spectrum. This is where new ways of approaching consumer data and insight gathering at the start of each campaign towards understanding human behavior is important.

Most people still present data as dry rational facts that are not translated into stories based on sentiments from the data. Now as we all have better access to data, we need to be smarter in using them to create a more accurate and compelling story to influence, "touch" our target audiences’ emotions and the evoke the feeling of connection.

Each consumer or a stakeholder’s data tells a story, and data is an important tool to gather insights towards forming many creative opportunities. Once we connect the representing data to tell our story,  we can go deeper and map out the behavior of the consumer towards the brand scientifically and create a campaign or communications that speaks to the consumer emotionally. Some insights from behavioral science help us understand how people think and act in real life, and how we can influence this. 

People often behave in ways that are surprising and occasionally irrational. Consumers do not always switch to a better or cheaper product and employees may not move to more effective ways of working. And we know that almost all of us do not save, exercise, or eat as healthily as we know we should. There is often a gap between someone having the good intention to change their behaviour, and their actions falling short. For example, perhaps you intend to wash your hands for 20 seconds because you know it can help stop the spread of COVID-19. But you do not always do so. If this is the case, how can a soap company find the opportunity and create the communication strategy?

Dan Berry, H+K’s director on behavioral science, shared that behavioral insights reveal most human behavior is driven by automatic, instinctive and intuitive thought processes. Even decisions we believe people make rationally are often automatic, influenced more by context than by consciously thinking something through. Take for instance brushing your teeth: you do not consciously "think" about doing it. It is cued by waking up and going to bed, repeated twice daily, and therefore has become automatic behaviour. Once a behaviour becomes automatic, it is likely to be sustained. Again, same question, with this insight, how can a toothpaste brand connect with the consumer and induce the right behaviour?

One famous fact on human behavior is what is called the "IKEA effect", where research shows that people who are more involved with the design or creation of the product will value their purchase more. If you build or create something yourself, you are committed and more willing to spend money.

All these examples mean communication based on appeals to people’s rational thought processes are insufficient. And presenting raw data without concluding the behavior based on data will not be enough to reach the consumer’s emotions.

This means that storytelling supported by data is key and PR agencies must invest beyond writers and editors to include data and analytics as part of its transformational move. They must also use the knowledge of behavior sciences to create a better quality of communications approach.

COVID-19 and the world after the pandemic presents a stronger need to take the conventional storytelling approach to the next level, as general education and awareness of a brand or product is no longer enough. Storytelling based on intuition and "pure" feeling must evolve, using data in its interpretation to better influence stakeholders and induce behavior change and habits.

The author is Marianne Admardatine, CEO of H+K Strategies, Indonesia.