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Matt Wallaert: advertising needs more behavioural science


To create more impact advertisers and CMOs should involve behaviour science more often in their ad campaigns, says behavioural scientist and entrepreneur Mat Wallaert. In his vision it's the natural evolution of marketing. But beware: with more impact comes more responsibility.

Wallaert is the keynote speaker at the MerkKracht congress on March 12 in Amsterdam, where the Dutch association of advertisers bvA is celebrating its centenary. (Due to the Corona virus Merkkracht has been postponed until September 24th, AO) He is author of the book 'Start at the End: How to Build Products that Create Change'. In his words it's the closest he could get to a manual for a science-based process to create behaviour change that can be implemented in organizations of any size and industry.

Turn around
In his book he crushes the classic 'Mad Men'-approach companies use to try selling people products and services they don't want and won't help them to be happier and healthier, only by overspending on marketing. He wants to turn that around by starting with outcomes instead of processes. According to Wallaert the most effective companies understand what people want to do and why they aren't already doing it. Knowing this, they can build products and services to bridge the gap.

Behavioural change is everything
What will be his message to advertisers, CMOs and marketers attending the congress? ,,The primary message is that the purpose of everything is behavioural change. That is a little bit of a mind shift for advertisers. We lived for many years in a world in which we privileged the creative and the memorable. But in reality what matters is: did it change behaviour? All communication exists to change behaviour in some way," says Wallaert. ,,Metrics like memorable, creative, clever etcetera don't mean anything if they don't actually drive behaviour."

Wrong awards
What he wants to say is: If an add is incredibly clever, everybody remembers it and people talk about it at the office, but if it causes no one to actually buy the advertised product, you can ask yourself if it was a successful ad. A lot of successful campaigns wouldn't be regarded successful when measured in this way. ,,But that is not how we often think about advertising, although there are exceptions. We mostly give awards for creativity, we give awards for memorableness, but we hardly give awards for 'actual making people do something'. I think that is a problem," Wallaert says.

Wallaert travels around the world, trying to convince CMOs about the importance of behavioural science and then helping them find out how to actually do it. ,,If we accept that it's all about behaviour, then that leads us to a very different process approach than we currently use. Our process now is about creativity and emotion and feelings. I'm not saying they are bad, but they matter only if they drive behaviour. If behaviour is the outcome that we want, that should lead us to a science-based process," he says.

Be a scientist
In his opinion marketers can be behavioural scientists. ,,Ultimately I try to convince them to think of themselves in that way. If behaviour is your outcome and science is your method, then you are a behavioural scientist by definition. Getting marketers to take those steps and put behaviour in the centre of what they do, that is the dominant outcome that I'm looking for. They have to understand that it's the natural evolution of what they do."

Chief Behavioural Officer
Wallaert was Microsoft's first Behavioural Scientist and is currently the Chief Behavioural Officer (CBO) at Clover Health, an American health insurance company with a lot of older and disabled clients. There he uses behavioural science to have them adopt a healthier lifestyle, for instance to convince them to exercise more or to get their flew shots in time. Thus he is changing the model of insurance by changing behaviour.

Ethics are an important chapter in the behavioural approach. If you are able to change the behaviour of people, the ethical bar is raised. Some approaches are ethically totally unacceptable, as Cambridge Analytica has shown the world.

Wallaert: ,,I can use behavioural science to get people to smoke more cigarettes or to buy more guns. It matters what you choose. It's not about the tool. The tool is just power. It's what you use the tool for. When a commercial has the ability to drive real behaviour change, you're taking on a much higher burden. You have to ask yourself: Am I really okay with the behaviour change this creates or not? Even in a world where advertisements are about being clever, you still are changing people's behaviour. You just are not articulating that you are doing so. To say 'I am freed of the ethical constraint because it's just an advertisement' is ridiculous. Obviously it's not just an advertisement. Obviously it has the potential to change people's behaviour. Given the fact advertising does work, you have to use it as a tool for good."

Impact and responsibility
At this point Wallaert's keynote speech touches the main theme of the congress. Driving behaviour has more impact and with more impact and influence comes greater responsibility. MerkKracht wants big brands and CMOs to realise they have great impact on people.

,,The congress is about impact and responsibility. What you see is that brands and companies have an increasing impact on society and an increasing influence on how people think and look at things. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously. In the case of multinationals, even more than governments. The question we ask marketers, brands and advertisers is: what do you do with it?,'' says Theo van Uffelen, former marketing director at Aegon and Coca-Cola, who organizes the congress on behalf of the vbA. ,,Because with that greater influence and power comes greater responsibility. We sometimes call that the Peter Parker or Spiderman principle. So the question is: how do you use that great influence or power?"

From the inside
Many brands and companies seek the answer in socially responsible entrepreneurship, not just in making a profit and creating shareholder value. According to Van Uffelen, this must come from within the company and cannot be a commercial trick to please consumers. According to him, CMOs and marketers can play an important role in this, by influencing the boardroom. ,,They have a responsibility to steer the company in the right direction and use that influence in the right way," he says.

Consumers expect that from companies and brands. They want to be able to trust a brand, want it to take a position in the social debate and show what it stands for. This is confirmed in all sorts of survey's by Edelman, Mckinsey, or most recently by think-tank Credos and the British Advertising Association (AA). It shows that 46 percent of the people feel that advertising has a positive impact on society and 42 percent believe that advertising can help make the world a better place.

The congress looks back at a hundred years of history and at the same time looks ahead to the future of advertising and advertisers. The vbA wants to inspire CMOs and their marketing departments and offer concrete tools on how to deal with this dual responsibility and how they can get the best out of their brands, their communication and the effectiveness of their company. Although at first sight Wallaert seems to be the odd man out, his presentation fits in perfectly with the theme. ,,For instance: If data is the yang then behavioural science is the yin. Data alone cannot explain why things happen and why people behave the way they do. To influence behaviour you have to combine the two," says Van Uffelen. 

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