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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

John Drummond – The Interview

As part of our ongoing research into emerging forms of behaviour change policy we spoke to the Chairman of Corporate Culture John Drummond. John is the founder of the Social Marketing Academy and Social Marketing Network. He has expertise in behaviour change, social change, branding and market-led CSR. John began life as a journalist before working for IBM in sales and marketing for seven years. He was formerly Group Communications Director of United Utilities.We started our interview by discussing How on Earth, the new sustainable behaviour change arm of Corporate Culture…Mark: I want to actually start by asking you a little bit about How on Earth, because I realize that this is a big new development for Corporate Culture this year. In what ways does How on Earth reflect a shift in the behavioural focus of Corporate Culture?
John: We’ve found ourselves evolving very much over time. When I joined Corporate Culture, we led on communications with all stakeholders, and it was primarily communications business.  And I twisted that to focus on strategic CSR.  And we did a whole bunch of reviews in that space.  So, it became a social impact communications business. But that evolved over time into doing a lot of work with WRAP [the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme] from the time they were born.  Then, working with them strategically on RecycleNow, and building up a head of steam on social change.  And then, getting involved with Love Food, Hate Waste.  And then, widening the behaviour change thinking into health and doing dozens of health projects.  And so, what we found was from our origins, we became a social change business.The Corporate Culture proposition is still very strong.  A lot of sustainable behaviour change that engages consumers or customers, actually depends on an employee engagement and a framework of understanding within the organisation.  So, they’re compatible, but they’re not the same.  As Corporate Culture we work very comfortably with the employee engagement corporate strategy on long-term success and sustainable business.  As How on Earth, we need to appeal to a different constituency of players.  So, How on Earth is the brand we use for sustainable behaviour change.  And you know, the reason for the name is primarily that it’s asking the question, “How on earth do 9 billion, 10 billion, 11 billion people live on the planet successfully?”  It also focuses on the fact that behaviour change at scale is a process.  So, it’s very much about the how.  And it’s very much about people.  So, you know, that’s the thinking.
Mark: You mentioned that How on Earth is targeting behaviour change in a slightly different way.  Would you see that as targeting the public sector as well as corporate world?
John:   It’s sustainable behaviour change across any sector and any behaviour.  And I’ll give you an indication of that width in a moment.
Rachel: I’m wondering what your motivation was earlier on, when you said you bent the work of Corporate Culture towards CSR and more behaviour change.  I wonder where that came from?
 John: My own motivation?  Do you know, I have not the faintest idea. All I know is from kick-off, I’ve always been very interested in people.  And that continued through journalism in that journalism is all about people …and that need for news and curiosity.  And well, those are still two key motivators linked to behaviour change.  When I joined IBM, I joined as a salesman.  And I was a crap salesman.  It’s the only job I’ve ever done where I was really shit.  I really was bad.  And it was primarily because the way they were teaching at that time was about selling products.  And I can’t sell products.  I can understand businesses, I can understand individuals, I can understand how to develop solutions, which might include technology.  But I can’t sell technology.  I couldn’t sit down and say, “Oh.  My aim before I go into the meeting is to make you buy a system/36 or something like that.”  I’d go, that’s the wrong starting point.  When I was with IBM,t hey got that focus wrong and it challenged their survival.  What they did get right, though, was a focus on what they called communications and public affairs, which was pretty much around the pro social programmes.  So, I moved out of straightforward marketing, and worked in the area where you could combine social change with commercial benefit and that was actually extraordinarily powerful. And having picked that up, it was easy then to move into the utilities, and see how, when you’re providing an essential service like water, commercial benefit and social impact go hand in hand.  And why wouldn’t that be the case for every organisation?  So, you know, when I had the chance to move out of big corporations to work with all organisations on any aspect, it always seemed to me just a complete alignment of all our interests. The idea that different stakeholders ambitions were usually in conflict is an assumption that turns out to be hugely flawed.  That actually, there’s just a complete, compelling alignment between what’s in the best interest of government, what’s in the best interest of private companies, what’s in the best interest of individuals and communities.  We’re all facing in the same direction.  We just really aren’t very good at defining that and managing it.
Mark: I’ve noticed in some of your publications, which I have been looking through, that you discuss the idea of sustainable behaviour change as a form of new discipline. Can you tell us more about this new disciplinary vision?
 John: In the 2000s we began to get intimately involved with the NSMC (National Social Marketing Centre – UK) The Department of Health was actively promoting social marketing. And so we used the language of social marketing.  Social marketing is now not at all popular in the public sector as a turn of phrase, and not known in the private sector.  Whereas, behaviour change and the idea of sustainable behaviour change was in vogue, so we decided that as a turn of phrase that was what we were looking for in order to reinvent CSR in light of the 2008 learnings.  And so, we were the first to use, as a consultancy, the idea of sustainable business.  And then, we started using the phrase sustainable behaviour change simply to appeal to what was our then current market.  Sustainable Behaviour Change was first coined by my colleague Hazel Wilkinson in 2011. And if social marketing is a discipline, so is sustainable behaviour change.  It’s the same thing.  It doesn’t matter what you call it.  It’s the same underlying principles.
 Mark: On that point, we are quite interested in this relationship between social marketing at one level, and the kind of more in vogue behaviour change, behavioural economics approaches […] Do you see them as competing or compatible?
 John: For me, Nudge Theory and the work of the Behavioural Insight Team is tactical rather than strategic.  For me, it’s one of the strategies that can be used.  It’s very far from being the only way of achieving behaviour change at scale.  And it disappoints me enormously how this government has let the social marketing expertise that did exist completely dissolve and dissipate based on a prejudice that communications were a waste of public money, that social marketing wasn’t something that was invented by them […]  And the idea that you could come in with a different framing, or a slightly different intervention, and achieve real change, felt really good.  And it works, clearly, in some cases, it works.  But it’s one of a large number of different tactics that can be used.
 Mark: I like that phrase tactical […] because the way I see it evolving now, and if you hear David Halpern talk, it seems to be more about pragmatism, and what works in government.  In that, we’re not really aligning ourselves to any particular way of doing behaviour change.
 John: The concern I have is because it’s become vogue, it’s kind of limited public policy thinking that when you’re talking about behaviour change, you’re talking about Nudge as if they’re synonymous.  They’re not at all synonymous. Sustainable behaviour change is an evidence-based process that aims to motivate behaviour change to achieve a social goal. To do that we need to influence individuals, consciously and unconsciously. This is what Kahneman refers to as System 1 and System 2 thinking. But we also need to influence social behaviour and that too is conscious and unconscious.
Mark: How would you define your dominant influences in terms of thinking about sustainable behaviour change?
John: Well, see, that’s interesting.  That’s interesting.  Because I am, and we are, as a company, integrators.  So, it’s not like we take an influence, and go, “Oh, that’s our dominant driver.  Oh, it’s all about shared value now.  Or it’s all about social marketing now.”  We are pragmatists.  So, we work with organisations to understand what your objectives are, what you’re trying to achieve.  And we also have an underlying principle of challenge.  That if we think your approach is actually contrary to the achievement of your objectives, we’ll challenge that.  And we’ll make suggestions about what you might do to achieve real change.  So, you know, in a very practical way, the way that works in practice, is with Anglian Water [Water Utility Company]. They faced challenges to their business. The number of people in their region are growing hugely, but the existing water resources are the same.  How do we change the behaviours of all businesses and individuals in our region in a way that’s sustainable?  So, we have a business over the longer term, not just in the five-year regulatory intervals that. Because you can’t think in five-year increments.  This is a much longer-term ambition.  So, they created Love Every Drop as something that combined their strategy with their sustainable CSR thinking.  Because this was about how to achieve long term goals […] and with them we asked what does this sustainable water company look like?  How do we achieve long-term success?  So, we worked with them on the whole strategic parameter.  Who were their stakeholders?  What was the commitment to each stakeholder?  What was their…was their measurement framework?  And then, how did you role out that thinking around sustainable business into the changes that you needed?  So that all your constituents loved every drop and they valued water and put it at the heart of a new way of living.  And in practice, that led through then to things like the Keep It Clear campaign. Together we moved the idea of sewer flooding from an engineering solution to a behaviour change solution, changing what people put down sinks and loos.
And the reason I’m telling you this story is it’s more that we’re open to good thinking and best practice from anywhere.  But the priority for us isn’t applying theory to problems.  It’s being really clear about the problems, and then, bringing in appropriate, relevant tools or thinking or theories that support it.  So, for example with food waste. WRAP’s challenge  was that they didn’t know where to start because the reality when you did a contextual review was there were about 60 different levers that were relevant one way or another to address food waste, from 24/7 culture to after the war environment where food was…in surplus…that we could have what we wanted.  And different people in the family could have their own choices of what they ate.  How do they make sense of that?  What we found ourselves doing in that case was drawing on quality improvement thinking.  And things like, you know, the Japanese 5 Whys [iterative questioning technique] way of thinking around continuous improvement. And we used contextual analysis identifying these 60 issues.  And then, we drew a line where they connected with the other issues.  And the ones that had this, you know, more lines out were root causes.  The ones that had more lines in were objectives.  And we began to be able to narrow it down, so that you could make sense by using those quality tools to actually get to something that really began to encapsulate the problem and that there was and preferred outcome in a way that then became manageable.  And that led over time, from something that was hugely complex to something that was really simple.  What we want is people to buy what they need, and use what they buy.  So, you could get from complexity to simplicity.  So, who are the big influencers?  If I’m giving you that list, it would be a big list from the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio to the hypnotherapist Milton Erickson.  And his thinking was outstandingly good because it was based on helping people understanding where people were, where they were starting from rather where you wanted them to be.
Mark: I’m not familiar with him.
John: Milton Erickson is a…he’s a hypnotherapist.
Mark: Hypnotherapist?
John: Yeah.  He’s dead now.  But he’s got a cracking book on his use of storytelling to achieve individual change, called My Voice Will Go With You.  So, he’s a big influence.
Mark: So he works on the subconscious through hypnotherapy?
 John: Not just unconscious but also conscious. It’s not an either or thing.  It disturbs me when people start with that kind of bias.  The reality is that if you’re looking at change in any area, the odds are it includes conscious and unconscious.
 Mark: For what it is worth my view on this is that behaviour change is about governing that boundary line between the conscious and unconscious. Some things you want to take from the conscious into the unconscious.  So you want to take certain conscious decisions that make good sense and move then into unconscious practices that form good habits.  And things like bad habits you want to take out of the unconscious and put them into the conscious mind so they can be re-rationalised.
 John: Well, you often have to go…in order to make it a subconscious habit, you often have to take it to the conscious first before it returns to the subconscious.  But it’s not an either or thing there. What disturbs me is that you get big thinkers like Nancy Lee and Phil Kotler. They’ve been the recognised experts in social marketing.  But their starting point has been within a frame of the five P’s [marketing matrix: price, product, people, place and production] And for me, if you over push your frame, you’re not learning from experience.  So, if you’re over pushing the five P’s or Mindspace or any one thing, you don’t…you’re not really getting it. You look at what you need to do and you bring in the appropriate theory to serve the achievement of the goal, not the other way around.  I don’t know whether that helps.  Another person that I like and rate would be Steven Pinker, and his work on the use of language.
Mark:  If we could just move into the corporate question again. I think my question is, is really what is, in your opinion, I know it’s a very difficult multi-layered question…the motivation of corporations in moving into the field of behaviour change. On one level, and this is just a philosophical point, whether we are starting to see corporations starting to occupy the place that you know governments previously occupied at one level, in terms of having a bit of a public policy remit almost.
John: The motives are mixed. There’s a pragmatic approach based on current circumstances.  In other words, if in energy, the regulator or the government is challenging you, you may decide to act to help people reduce their energy bills.But from 2008 I think companies have been forced to re-invent their business models. That includes focusing more on the longer term. And as soon as you focus on the longer-term you are forced to consider context. We are just about to launch a new Burning Platform report that captures the 14 or so major external issues like water, energy, health, technology, education, employment, climate change etc…..This aims to look at the major challenges we face from economic sustainability to the resilience of our water supplies from three different perspectives. The perspective of global trends. The perspective of business leaders and the perspective of individuals…you and I.So, you ask about the reason for business interest, it’s this….that as they look ahead, to achieve their preferred future, they have identified a need to change the behaviour of employees, suppliers and customers because that is the only way they can create sustainable markets. If there are no sustainable supplies of raw materials, skills, water or energy for example there is no economy.
 Mark: I sense that Corporate Culture has this kind of fairly universal desire to change things at a large scale, share knowledge, share best practices.  And I guess my question is when you’re working with the private sector, what are some of the challenges that creates? It is just that I talked with Global Action Plan recently, and they talked a lot about confidentiality clauses and the way that companies can be proprietorial about their own behavioural interventions.
John: Yeah, but no but.  Yes, as in practical examples, again.  Anglian Water did not want to share their experience of Keep It Clear with the rest of the sector until they’d had measurable results. On the other hand, what we’re finding with the launch of the social marketing network and the round tables is actually, there’s this common ground where everybody is happy to explore and share everything.  And WRAP have been leading the way […] The problem is that it varies behaviour by behaviour, company by company in terms of that willingness to be open with experience and learning and intellectual capital.  So, in the public sector, for example, it’s just bad public policy implementation if in the past, a large number of PCTs  [NHS Primary Care Trust] were looking simultaneously at that you know, encouraging responsible drinking, or encouraging people to give up smoking, but they didn’t have a single research hub for people to bring all their research together, and share it with each other.  Why the hell not?  And why, in many cases […] in almost every case, frankly, the target behaviour and audience would have been different and required original research.  On the other hand, there were a very large number of situations where the health lead would not have had the budgets to do original research.  And existing research would have provided them with insight that would have helped them achieve success.  But that hub was not there, that sharing wasn’t taking place.  But the reason that wasn’t taking place was primarily because it wasn’t identified as an issue of sufficient political importance to make something happen in that space. Within businesses, it’s issue by issue.  So, you can see, for example, on food waste, collaborative action.  You can see on recycling, collaborative action.  You can’t possibly see, at the moment, collaborative action in the energy sector, collaborating with each other by best practice to help all our customers save energy.  You couldn’t see in the financial services sector collaborative action to help people save money for their long-term future.
But just to finish the question about why businesses are interested now and why they would collaborate.. …they’ve been challenged by a recognition that the whole economic system frequently fails to take into account two things. First, the importance of context.Just focusing on short term financial gain is actually a business risk.And the issues are the same whatever organisations you’re talking to and this is why they are collaborating. If I am a business I need sustainable supply of energy.  I need a sustainable supply of water.  I need sustainable resources.The second major thing business is learning is the fact they can only succeed with a deep understanding of people and the previous view (that we are all reasonable people acting in our own best interests) has been flawed.

So, it’s complex in that it’s an understanding of people you start from.  And that evolution is continuing from this.  You know, Damasio [Antonio Damasio] another influencer, is absolutely clear and it’s pretty bloody obvious whether you’re an academic or just a human….you can’t divorce the head from the heart.  You can’t divorce the brain from the body.  We learn lessons of principled thinking based on our experience and our senses.  And we experience things with our senses based on our thinking.  So, it’s a single organism.  So, this idea somehow that we can separate our thoughtful rational lives, from our own lives, when we come into work, and we’re just rational men, is just crap. 

 So, it’s a number of different influencers. So, what we’re hoping begins to happen is much more intelligent debate about these major external issues.  And why they are critical to long-term commercial success. 

 Rachel: I know, that’s true.  Damasio is actually my starting point as well and probably leads back to the politicians in a way, as well, in terms of getting a better understanding or experiential intelligence, which is why we are interested in the link between Mindfulness and behaviour change.
 John: Now, mindfulness is really interesting in that I think it’s relevant as is NLP [Neuro Linguistic Programming] for example and all kinds of other stuff.  Mindfulness is really interesting in that what it carries with it is an understanding that we are creatures of space and time.  That we all focus on the now, where we are physically here now.  I think it was Henry James’s brother, one of the early psychologists who talked about the specious present or something like that, which is this idea that all we live in is three seconds.  Enough to have a swig of beer, or a puff of a cigarette or something.  What happened 10 seconds ago, we don’t remember.  What’s going to happen 10 seconds from now, we don’t know.  So, we’re all living in this kind of three-second here and now. This is where the academic theory comes in because you begin to get into hyperbolic discounting…and the fact that further the further away as in space and time,something is, the less relevant it is.  And therefore, the more difficult it is to communicate and engage people.  So, you can see how that thinking comes in there.  The problem is, though, that humans are really not very good at […] even living in the now, day in, day out. We’re not even really good at being consciously present in the now, somehow. And what we do instead is we project ahead by worrying about outcomes into the future that won’t ever happen, that torment us and influences what we do, day in, day out.
 Rachel: Yes, there are a range of different contexts in which Mindfulness could be used.
 John: Well, the challenge is, Mindfulness is about the conscious me. It is a part of the whole. There is also the unconscious me which is essential because if we are forced to make between 2,000 and 10,000 decisions a day we can’t do all this consciously. It’s too slow. What Nudge theory does is to understand the biases, the shortcuts or heuristics at the unconscious us level. What I am beginning to explore is the potential power of the conscious us to collaborate around social change. The big thing for me is how to focus on the behaviours we need of individuals and of companies and of governments to achieve common impacts that make a difference to all our lives.

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