Editor’s note: Alex Hunt is CEO of N.Y. metro-based market research firm PRS IN VIVO. 

growthWhy do people what they do, and how can we influence their choices in our favor?

This is the question at the core of the insights industry. For roughly the last 20 years, behavioral science has become the accepted, recognized principle for examining this question. 

But the adoption of behavioral science to transform the way large companies run their businesses has been slow. Corporate market research remains behind psychology. This is because behavioral science is a challenge to classical marketing, which presumes everyone operates at a highly rational way. But it is proven that humans are unreliable witnesses to their own actions and intentions.

Despite embracing the power of behavioral principles, behavioral science itself has shown us that it is extremely hard to evolve and change, even when habits and defaults prove contrary to self-interest. The same is true in corporate insight functions and leading insight suppliers. Organizations tend to cling to the very practices they know don’t reflect human decision-making and don’t drive better outcomes or growth. 

So, how can insight teams act as growth architects and lead efforts to embed behavioral science into their organizations in a way that drives growth?

A blueprint: Building a behavioral science-driven organization

For researchers looking to empower marketers to create influential interactions that guide consumer choice in order to deliver better business outcomes for their companies – and ultimately embed behavioral science into their business process – the following three-step process is recommended. 

  1. Invest in foundational learning: Foundational learning in behavioral science is important because behavioral science will provoke change. Without knowledge to fall back on, efforts to embed the principles in business processes will fail. 
  2. Develop a concrete roll-out plan: A clear plan is important because behavioral science has limitless possibilities. Key stakeholders must align and be clear on where the organization is going, how you will get there and commit to ambitious but achievable goals. 
  3. Avoid predictable pitfalls: Pitfalls are common when doing anything new, especially something as big as embracing behavioral principles to guide overall business practices. Learn from other companies, understand what can go wrong and take steps to avoid predictable mistakes in the process of change management. 

Guidelines for successes

As you embrace this three-step formula, here are a few things to keep in mind to help ensure success. 

1. Treat foundational learning like an undergraduate science. Behavioral science is a walk into the marketing unknown, a world where researchers are traditionally uncomfortable. We’re abandoning norms, tried-and-true frameworks and potentially operating with micro nudges that don’t lend themselves to immediate validation. Without a thorough grounding and passion for the science, the potential of behavioral science will not be recognized or adopted. That said, don’t get lost in the science or anecdotes. Get some basic training and then work with expert partners to codify your organization’s plan of action. 

2. Strive for functional alignment. After academic exploration, the possibilities for behavioral science impacting the business are endless. It can be an opportunity for the insight function to lead the organization into a new orientation toward growth, rather than simply being the custodians of research outputs.  

This can go as far as a functional re-brand for the CMI team. It is an opportunity to overhaul and improve accuracy of methods, tools and decision-making metrics, signaling the transformation of CMI from data collection to full stakeholder status with skin in the game and accountability for the desired business results. 

It can be an opportunity to re-organize – like developing a center of excellence and on-staff behavioral scientists, as some brands have chosen to do. 

Whatever the choice, make it tangible and a make sure there is a visible reminder of the change. 

3. Make the behavioral science road map commercial. The organization’s commercial objectives must be the driving force to tailor application of learning on human behavior and relate it to the company’s business targets. Create a simple living road map for how stakeholders make all decisions, and ground it and anchor it in your upcoming commercial objectives. It should be loose enough to be applied to new objectives – year after year, initiative after initiative, project after project. But it also needs to be tight enough to be tangible, measurable and deliver specific changes as the business conditions evolve.

External partners who are genuine behavioral science experts can help shape this framework. Just make sure they are grounded in a rigorous understanding of your commercial businesses goals as well. 

4. Engage, educate, repeat. Armed with the science, a framework and partners to help you with tactical execution, the team must now educate within the insight function and beyond to the broader stakeholder community. 

Don’t skimp on the resources needed for communicating the plan and be ruthless with the metrics by which you will gauge success. Without a fully shared framework, familiar tools or trusted KPIs, stakeholders will push back. If behavioral science is perceived as an opportunity for insight teams and their partners to lead, then they will need to establish why they have credibility to do so.

Make it your mission to inspire and engage the C-suite and secure their sponsorship in the endeavor. Organizations who have revolutionized themselves around successful application of behavioral science are those with C-level endorsement and support. Why? Because with C-suite sponsorship there is proof that the transformation is endorsed, which stimulates an avalanche of adoption.

5. Build a behavioral science charter and treat it like a brand. It is essential to have a long-term vision of where the company is going and how behavioral science will contribute to getting there – as a rallying cry for insight team and the broader universe of internal stakeholders – versus incentivizing around short-term needs. The behavioral science component of the brand should have a clear charter (e.g., to cultivate and deploy better human understanding that acts as the beacon for brand growth). 

You should treat the behavioral science plan like any new initiative or product. It must have a launch and communications plan (internal launch videos, websites, project videos, behavioral science content curation and social media). To ensure behavioral science takes off internally, we must change culture. Build these steps into your plan or risk the initiative getting swallowed up by other priorities and perceived challenges that will inevitably arise internally. 

6. Focus on social proof and small victories. You’ve got to find somewhere to start so make sure it’s realistic. Setting a goal of more effective creative briefs is probably more attainable than a goal like solving obesity. The former is more achievable and a success there can fuel the appetite to take on the latter! 

Graduate-level science, or a search for the perfect method, is often an enemy of action here. Celebrate social proof – small and early wins are important in any effort to embed or change behavior. Achievable, visible outcomes can lead lagging teams to follow and copy (another principle of behavioral science at work). 

Create a library of theory and successful application examples, chronicling these successes. It is encouraging for team members to be acknowledged for posterity, even if the library is simply a repository of proof cases to support KPIs. 

7. Outcomes not outputs. Focusing on outcomes doesn’t mean there won’t be research outputs. There will still be a need for validated insights to support evidenced-based decision-making – a chart with emotional measurement of advertising; speedier response in screen and select NPD ideas; or contextual measurement in shopper experience. But it is hyper important to draw a straight line to what those insights – interpreted through a behavioral lens – mean to the business and what actions they imply need to be taken. And this may mean convincing stakeholders to relinquish reliance on old conventional norms. If the context for interpreting insights relies on a familiar and conventional rational frameworks or metrics that are no longer relevant in a behavioral model, the commercial objective is not likely to succeed. 

8. Organizational behavior change. Don’t underestimate the degree behavioral science principles can explain and diagnose reasons for lack of adoption. In a twist of irony, the truth about the recalcitrant power of habits embodies the challenge in change management itself! Overcoming loss aversion, anchoring innovations with element that are 80% familiar/20% new and framing choices so there is context and predictability in the result are all ways of demonstrating the rewards of behavior change. You need to apply a bit of behavioral insight to move an organization to change its own behavior! A passionate champion, an expert on the ground and in the C-suite – as well as lots of patience and determination – will contribute to success, even if it is still fundamentally hard. 

9. Future-proof through scale. One challenge for applying behavioral science, however, is achieving lasting impact. Aside from failure to recognize behavioral science as the most important science of our industry, the biggest danger for companies is the reliance on internal or external experts or single champions to make the change stick. The expert will at some point move on, and company behavior can easily revert to previous state of inertia. The power of behavioral science can and should be used to transform scalable methods, as well as repeatable work flows, for lasting effect. Whether is it how the organization views communications testing, CX or NPD, the principles of behavioral science should be the lens through which the organization makes recurrent go/no go decisions. Behavioral science has to become embedded in how everyone sees the organization working optimally in order to make the change permanent. 

A behavioral foundation that works

If the last 20 years have taught us anything it is that shopping and retail environments may evolve and circumstances in which consumers interact with brands may change, but the way humans behave and make choices does not. Creating a business environment grounded in behavioral principles is the one sure way to guide any organization toward growth and better outcomes against their goals. 

There are no short cuts on the path to embedding behavioral principles in the processes through which any organization pursues its ambitions. For as long as I have been in the research business, I have heard that we all aspire to see insight teams elevating their influence on the C-suite. Becoming growth architects is an opportunity for insight professionals to lead in the goal of transforming companies and taking a seat at the table.