Behavior Change: Addressing the Challenges of Scale in the Social Sector with Cues from Consumer Marketing

Abstract: Consumer Marketing has been successful at changing consumption behaviors, persuading people to change habits – switch a brand (or increase loyalty to one), adopt a new category, increase consumption etc. They do it at scale, and for products that people may not inherently “need”, and are often not “good” for them. What can we learn from the frameworks and strategies they use to create or adapt nudges for desired behaviours in the social sector?


The application of behavioral economics and “nudge’ theory has increased manifold in recent times with several institutions and governments dedicating units to behavior change. Success stories abound across sectors – iron fortification, hand washing,  girl child education,  increase in household savings, safe water adoption. However, most interventions are limited to village or district level. Notable exceptions exist including examples such as—Sikkim free from open defecation, Oral Rehydration Solutions (ORS) adoption in diarrhea management and large-scale immunization. In spite of our leanings from such cases, challenges in replicating and scaling up behavior change initiatives for the entire country continue to retard universal development.

Looking at the world of consumer products, there are a number of successful national scale brands who have made it big in a relatively short period of time. From the more historic Titan and Surf to the more recent Amazon, Reliance Jio or Xiaomi, they have managed to change consumer behavior at scale. Adopting new categories, changing brands, increasing frequency of usage, shopping online or at new stores is all about behavior change. Fundamentally, this is because the focus on Demand or Marketing is as much as (if not greater) that on Supply. The use of nudges (and more!) in Marketing has been since ages. The question to be asked now is: can we use some of that learning to affect social change?

Marketing Strategies for Effective Behavior Change

Some of the effective strategies used in marketing to induce behavior change are:

Investing behind the “right” behaviors to change

Linking the behaviors we want to change with the strategic goal or outcome is an essential first step. A “sizing” exercise is needed here – for e.g., behaviors that need to change if our goal is getting new users for a category can be very different from say, increasing frequency amongst existing users. And then, within each set, identifying the “lowest hanging fruit”– i.e. behaviors that will have the most impact, and are easiest to change—have the least barriers or resistance would be the ones to target first.

Targeting the “right” people by segmentation

Another important step is to segment people not just demographically but by the different “levels” of propensity to change. For this, it is important to understand how ready or close they are to the change we desire. For e.g. committed, older loyalists to a brand who have been using it since childhood say, a Colgate dental cream, will be harder to change. Across sectors, we have found that older people are more entrenched in their habits and beliefs and more difficult to change (e.g. grandmothers vs. young mothers in parenting practices, toilet usage, nutrition). Interestingly, sometimes the very highly “educated” people, extremely confident of their beliefs, find it more difficult to accept new advancements and are harder to budge (e.g. doctors who are skeptical of latest advancements in the field of obesity management and diet modification). Certainly, people who are more aware about the need to change their behavior, and have a strong desire to do so would be the first ones to target with interventions (e.g. young overweight women who desperately want to lose weight before an important event respond well to simple “environmental” availability cues like potion control plates, emptier refrigerators etc.)

The above two give us a clear map of who to target and what to change for maximum impact.

Pull vs Push

This is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn from consumer marketing. As a core philosophy, choice is respected, and the attempt is to “draw them in”, using Pull strategies – creating the desire for action, and making it easy to happen. An oft-used, time-tested framework in marketing employs the 5Ps – make a Product that your consumers love and finds a place in their lives; Packaged in a way that enhances the user experience and adds value; at a Price they can afford, but is not so cheap that its value is questionable; available easily at a Place they can reach; and Promoted widely so that it grabs attention and makes one desire it. Notice all the actions are much more about luring the consumer towards your brand, than about “educating”, “informing” or telling them what’s better for them.

Sensory, Emotional and Social (SES)

These three are bigger drivers of behavior change than educational campaigns. If people find the change pleasurable from a sensorial perspective, are emotionally engaged with “fun” elements to make it enjoyable, and find social approval or status associated with the new behavior, change becomes far easier. This why Taste usually wins over Health; even though people are aware that most packaged snacks and drinks are unhealthy, they continue to consume them. This is also the reason why it is hard to switch to ragi and oats from wheat and rice. But when it is considered “hip” and modern to have millets and low sugar drinks, people will consume these in social situations. Imagine if we can provide all three drivers to the change we desire, it will be so much easier. An example of a success – product Masala Oats, enjoyed by positive and relatable modern role models, promoted by celebrities, and served in airlines etc. Health made Tasty, added Status value to it, creating Desire and Enjoyability. This has resulted in a huge lift in sales of oats.

Heavier Testing Earlier in the Program

The more successful brand launches typically have a heavier skew towards a lot of developmental and pre-testing programs. Testing every element of the “mix” earlier in the game not only saves a lot of money later (a key criterion for businesses), but also ensures a more effective launch, and less “defensiveness” on the part of the creators to accept negative results and work on improvements.

Tracking Progress on a Continuous basis

Many successful brands monitor what is called “brand health” on key parameters on an almost continuous basis. This not only tells us how the campaigns are performing but also helps detect early signs of distress across parameters, and timely action can be taken. If for instance, consumers’ top-of-mind salience scores are slipping, one needs to figure out whether the media choice needs correction or is it something else? Or, if a set of consumers are using less of a product in a certain period, is it because they have moved to another? And what drove them away?

The Process

We have combined learnings from Behavioral economics and Marketing to develop a robust and structured approach to address challenges in the social sector. A brief outline is provided below:

Typically, it would involve 6 steps:

Step 1: Goal Setting – needless to say, goals should be specific and measurable. This should be the outcome of the behavior we want to change. E.g. Improving the Oral Health of young urban adults – lower incidence of sensitivity and/or tooth decay 6 months after behavior change observed.

Step 2: Choose the behavior to change that will lead to this outcome. This is a crucial step. There may be many behaviors to change – we need to list them all out, gauge each one on how much it is likely to impact our Goal, then map them on three counts – Motivation (what’s in it for me – emotional, social, tangible reward); Capability (how easy is it to change the behavior – resource, skill and competency needed) and Opportunity (are there triggers in the environment that will allow this to happen?).

One of the most critical things we need to understand here is what are the enablers on each of these and what are the resistances – what we call the Booster – Barrier analysis. This will tell us which behavior to change that has the maximum impact with the least resource required.

Example: Of the many behaviors that would improve oral health, some of the more impactful ones identified were: Gargling after every meal; Brushing teeth at night; Visiting the dentist every six months; Getting teeth cleaned by a dentist at least once a year; Using a mouthwash every day. A detailed Motivation; Capability and Opportunity mapping was done with the Booster-Barrier analysis and the one behavior selected was Brushing at Night.

Step 3: Select the “Actuator”. This is a term coined to describe the levers to use as a basis to generate the ideas that will make people change. These Actuators are chosen to work on either boosting enablers or removing resistances on the three key influencers – Motivation, Capability or Opportunity, depending on which area within them we have observed has the maximum impact on change. This is where we apply some of the frameworks from Marketing practice as well, such as the 5P described earlier. Actuators can be Cognitive, Affective or Convenience based – we have built a bank of about 15 effective ones so far.

Example: Because there was no immediate problem felt with oral health, and the immediate benefits of night brushing were not experienced, people admitted to lapsing on this front despite knowing it was a good thing to do. Forgetting and feeling too lazy were the main barriers. The two Actuators one can use here would be the Prompt and the Bait – the Prompts to serve as reminders at the right time (before getting into bed at night) and the Bait to increase Motivation, especially using Social Motives.

Step 4: Generate the Idea(s) around the Actuator. This is what we will actually do to achieve the change – usually done through a brainstorming workshop employing creative thinking exercises. Important to remember the criticality of the Sensorial, Emotional and Social Drivers at this point.

Example: Ideas around the Prompt were relatively easy to generate – included messaging reminders, or associating timing with other bed time routines like changing into sleepwear, turning the lights off etc. Ideas based on the Bait Actuator were more interesting – one particularly motivating one was around promoting spousal intimacy with fresh breath, a natural association with brushing teeth. Several story ideas were generated under this umbrella, with the intent of deploying them in social media. Most of them ticked off Sensory; Emotional and Social benefits.

The next two steps are self-explanatory and need no elaboration – even as they would depend on the resources available, a well-designed program can ensure maximum impact.

Step 5: Implementation: This is executing the idea in field. Needless to say, attention to detail and excellence in Execution is a must for any success.

Step 6: Evaluate and Monitor: Necessary to measure results and do course correction as needed.

We do believe the above approach has the potential to achieve behavior change at scale, and see potential for applications in areas such as health behaviors such as Hand washing after urination/defecation; Hand washing in hospitals; Increased usage of toilets; Regular intake of supplements; Increased exercising, Diet control, as well as other behaviors in the social sector like Preventing littering; Separating garbage; Water saving practices; Recycling; Wearing seatbelts/helmets.

We are keen to collaborate with interested partners in the social sector. More detail on the approach above (especially the nature of the Actuators and how they work) can be shared in person. A workshopping mode is usually deployed with a strong focus on co-ownership and participation.

Please get in touch with Sangeeta at  or Deepali at to know more.


Ferrier, A. & Fleming, The Advertising Effect, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Michie, S., van Stralen, M.M. & West, R. “The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions”. Implementation Sci 6, 42, 2011.

Niti Aayog, India, “Stories of Change from India’s Aspirational Districts”, 2022. Retrieved from:

Silva, A., Bothen, A., Szreter, B., Devereux, C., Chambraud, C. & Makinson, L., Mass Media, Behavior Change and Peace Building: a discussion paper from The Behavioral Insights Team, 2022. Retrieved from:

Author: Sangeeta Gupta


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