Human-centric case study: Reducing UK car ownership

The long and winding road

The third topic we applied our behaviour change lens to was more ambitious than supermarket scanning and more contentious than voting patterns.  The challenge was: How can we get people to give up their cars?

Across the different workshops, we framed our SMART challenge in different ways, from the audacious – reduce car ownership by 50% by 2025 – to the more achievable – get people in Greater London to cut out two car journeys a week by 2018.

Thinking about behaviour is not as natural as we think

Our topic worked well as a behavioural challenge, principally because it was a subject our clients could personally relate to: it was easy to identify current behaviours they would like to tackle.

But thinking about their own businesses, many admitted this level of behavioural understanding is often lacking.  Marketers and insights professionals said they don’t have enough detailed knowledge of what consumers are actually doing.  Similarly, they can find it difficult to define, precisely, what they’d like them to do, and this is borne out in our experience of running workshops with clients on their live business challenges.

Another insight was that some of the best thinking focused quite far away from the car itself, to look at what the car was being used for.  Only by doing that, did we come up with ideas like encouraging people to plan their dinner in the morning or the night before so they could buy ingredients on the way home instead of nipping out in the car for a top-up shop.  In that way, the behaviour change needed was actually not to do with the car at all.  This highlights the fact that thinking more broadly about human motivations changes the frame of reference and thereby, the potential behavioural interventions.

Changing habits is hard

Our analysis of current and desired behaviours threw up some significant barriers we would have to overcome:

Default: Using a car is for many the habitual option. When it comes to things like the school run (which we all know clogs the roads), the attitude is one of “Everyone does it, why shouldn’t I?”  And that assumes people are thinking about it at all: jumping in the car is System 1 non-conscious behaviour at its most typical.

Self-efficacy: Even for those who do have access to other transport, there is a (perceived) challenge in how they will get themselves quickly and easily from A to B without their beloved cars.  The perception of barriers here creates real barriers: if people think it will be tough, they are less likely to even try.

Loss aversion: Car ownership is highly emotional – a car is an asset, but it’s also a symbol of freedom, status, achievement, spontaneity, family togetherness and more.

For marketers, ‘telling’ is the default mode

We’re always struck by how quickly workshop participants jump to traditional comms as a potential intervention.  It seems that we need to unlearn the desire to simply tell people the messages we want them to internalise and act upon.  Our default is to tell or push rather than to show or guide.

Once we’d overcome that natural tendency, it was rewarding to see the creativity our client teams brought to bear on solving the challenge in different ways: How to normalise new behaviours and drive new social norms through kid-shaming of school run pollution?  How to reverse the idea of loss aversion by framing not owning a car as a different kind of freedom?  The interventions we came up with included new designs for school buses, a virtual ‘walking bus’, specialist apps and even government interventions to incentivise car dealerships to change their business models.

The lesson, then, is as much to ourselves to change our own behaviour in how we even imagine the solutions: think anew about behaviours, recognise the power of habits and move beyond simplistic above-the-line communications.

The road to changing behaviours may not always be short and straight, but it can be very rewarding.  What could you change if you really put your mind to it?

To find out more about our approach to human-centric marketing, please get in touch.