In war and advertising, the challenge is changing behaviour

Since the dawn of humanity, conquering an enemy on the battlefield has never ensured their subjugation, let alone winning them over. Perhaps the ultimate weapon is no longer firepower but psychology, and the battlefield is no longer a physical place but rather the mind and heart.

Conventional wisdom has traditionally held that winning a war is a prerequisite to changing people’s behaviour. If it is reasonable to consider changing human behaviour to your favour, is it not reasonable to stretch the thought further and to think of changing human behaviour to avoid war altogether?

Chrysler was engaged in a war of its own at the turn of 2010. It was fighting for its life, and for the lives of the people who worked in it. Not dissimilar to conventional military confrontations, Chrysler’s war produced victims, suffering, broken lives, massacred livelihoods and much carnage; it was also devastating and slowly killing a city.

On February 7, all this changed, for the car giant turned an important corner with one act that changed the behaviour of many. Super Bowl XLIV was held on February 7, 2010, and Chrysler aired a two-minute TV commercial titled Imported from Detroit. Two years later, the commercial went on to win a Grand Effie Award in New York, after it not only sold the product – many Chrysler cars – but also sold the automotive category once again to a cynical consumer, and saved Detroit city from almost certain downfall.

The marketing and communication world is full of such examples; of embattled or dying brands resurrected, of everyday wars that are won by brands getting people to change behaviour, either starting, stopping or simply modifying practices, and these practices produce victors and vanquished alike – just like on a battlefield.

The more successful brands are able to overcome adversity because they are motivated by a strong and clear purpose. They start from a base understanding of human behaviour, and what fuels it. Such brands have clear convictions, just like people and leaders, and are able to join word with deed, thought with action, to move people and change their behaviour.

Look at Starbucks, for example. After dominating the sector as a 15,000-outlet strong chain in the early 2000s, the coffee brand’s diversification and grand ambitions became its Achilles heel. Between moving away from its core product, trying to take on the restaurant giant McDonald’s and attempting to expand in a weakened economy, Starbucks became its own worst enemy and the coffee empire was on the verge of collapse. Howard Schultz, the founder, stepped back in to pick up the reins, with a strategy that, while brutal at first, carved a victory over time by bringing back the human element that Starbucks had come to lack. Today, Starbucks is one of the world’s most easily recognisable brands with a following that borders the fanatical.

Ultimately, though, it is a question of purpose; a question of having a determined and resolute motivating ideal or reason for being that galvanises people and creates direction, momentum and focus. A common and clear purpose can be a powerful and effective tool in motivating people to change behaviour and adopting new practices. Look no farther than Europe, which historically was one of the bloodiest and most warmongering continents, rife with differences, full of contradictions and with very little in common. Yet today, Europe – for all its misgivings, challenges and failures – stands as a beautiful and inspiring example for all humankind that when you find common purpose, even the worst of enemies can come together and stop war in the future. Imagine that the French and Germans have so many economic alliances – an imponderable thought less than 50 years ago.

Around the world there is a huge community of communication practitioners that engage in daily battles on behalf of their brands, and they win wars for a living. They do so by changing the behaviour of people, and by giving purpose to brands. The time has come for a rather unorthodox and lateral approach to be considered to end conflict, or at least to modify the battlefield; the answer probably lies closer to what we do as communication practitioners than to others in any field near or far.

It is becoming glaringly apparent that winning conflict through the force of arms in today’s world is impossible. It is perhaps time to turn to the Mad Men of communication for purpose that changes behaviour of humankind. A wise man once said: “The obscure we ultimately understand; it is the completely obvious that takes a little bit longer.”

Kamal Dimachkie is the executive regional managing director for Leo Burnett UAE, Kuwait and the Lower Gulf

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