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The power of behavioural creative for design


Ian Birkett, Creative Director at Corporate Culture, explores what creative teams can take from behavioural science to better understand how people think, and use it to improve their design.

Behavioural science shows that 95% of human decisions are made subconsciously and intuitively, guided by innate biases and emotions. Yet traditional creative communications and marketing are too often designed for conscious, rational thought, and fail to effectively influence behaviour.

Behavioural creative uses the latest behavioural science insights to shape the creative process, and design outputs so they are in tune with how people think, process information and make decisions.

Tech and digital businesses constantly monitor and experiment with how people react with their products and services to see what is working best. But what can creative teams take from behavioural science to better understand how people think and how can they use it to improve their design?

The difficulties of decisionmaking

The common view of behaviours is based around long-held assumptions of people behaving rationally. But that assumes when we’re about to make a decision we all do things like:

  • Consciously weigh up all the available information
  • Calculate all of the pros and cons of our various options
  • Make a reasoned decision that’s in our own best interest
  • And then act decisively.

That’s asking a lot: perfect knowledge, strong memory, self-control, and unlimited mental energy, time and attention. Then throw in the fact that we all make something like 35,000 decisions every day, and it’s clear our brains need a little help.


How our brains work

Fortunately, they’ve evolved to help themselves. Faced with this onslaught of choices – some small, some large – our brains settle for quick and satisfactory rather than slow and optimal decisions.

These fast decisions take place in our Limbic brain – the evolutionarily older part – which works unconsciously and instinctively. It’s primarily emotional, and it can’t respond to language so relies on a rapid interpretation of the senses. This is known as System 1 thinking, and it accounts for up to 95% of our daily decisions.

Conversely, rational thinking and decision-making, known as System 2, take place in the Neocortex – the newer bit of the brain. It is reflective, cognitive calculating and harnesses language. But it’s a lot slower. Which is why it only accounts for 5% of our decisions. Who has the time?

Harnessing behavioural insights

The challenge for communicators and creatives is that most traditional marketing and design targets the rational, conscious, cognitive Type 2 brain; it relies too heavily on what people say they think, feel and act (their conscious responses), rather than how they think, feel and act. This focus on appealing to the Type 2 brain means that traditional design only targets as little as 5% of our decision-making.

The secret to working successfully with behavioural creative and scientific methods is to optimise the creative process and make it work seamlessly with how people make decisions.

Naturally, behavioural creative is still built on a powerful creative concept at its heart – that’s essential when you’re trying to build a deep emotional connection with your audiences. But it has a much greater focus on specific behaviours and uses more behaviourally-focused design techniques at all stages throughout the process.

Behavioural creative techniques

Here are the highlights of the seven behavioural creative techniques:

  1. Define the key behaviours: Identify them, be hyper-specific, and make them measurable.
  2. Prime your audience: Use the right mix of visual, cultural and emotional cues to drive pre-attention.
  3. Understand the context: How we feel, where we are, who we’re with, and what we’re doing will shape our choices.
  4. Grab attention with the nine stimuli: These capture attention immediately and instinctively by latching onto our deep-rooted, survival-based responses.
  5. Make processing easy: Brains are lazy, and have a bias towards information that is easier to process.
  6. Choose the right biases: There are 173+ biases and mental shortcuts that influence our decision-making. The trick is knowing which to target.
  7. Obsess over the details: Sweating the small stuff can be as important as the big-ticket items.

Prime your audience with design

One of the more interesting of the all the techniques is priming your audience by tapping into the associative networks in your brain. Priming is a phenomenon in which exposure to a stimulus, such as a word or an image, influences how one responds to a subsequent, related stimulus. It is thought to occur when particular mental representations or associations are activated before a person carries out an action or task. 

Every day when you process the world around you, your brain is constantly making conceptual connections both consciously and unconsciously – these are your associative networks in action.  Design fundamentally pulls together these visual, cultural, conceptual, contextual connections in a way that hopefully makes complete sense when presented to an audience. This is priming.

If it’s done well, the audience will instinctively understand the communication before their System 2 conscious brain starts to process the messaging.

The phrase ‘it just feels right’ is often heard when all elements of the communication are aligned. On a conceptual level, design and advertising is and has always been about making conceptual connections particularly at the core idea level. 

With this understanding, it makes the ideas and design phases of the project even more interesting and potentially powerful. By integrating these and other behavioural science insights throughout how we write, design, test and iterate, behavioural creative ensures our creative work is always aligned to the realities of human decision-making and that delivers more impactful and effective results.

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