Interrupting people is way harder than it sounds. Just ask a Boston cop.

Here’s a little story about how hard it is to get the attention of people who are thinking about something else.

In 1995, 29 year old Kenneth M. Conley, a cop in Boston, was in hot foot pursuit of a suspect. As he chased the man, he ran past a group of his colleagues who were savagely beating another suspect. It turned out that the suspect taking a beating was an undercover cop – who was so displeased with his colleagues that he pressed criminal charges against them.

Conley was called as a witness at their trial. Under oath, he stated that he hadn’t seen anything. Unfortunately, the jury didn’t believe him. He was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, sentenced to nearly 3 years in jail and fined $6000.

But is it possible that Kenneth Conley was telling the truth? There is growing evidence that he may well have been.

Human beings (and other animals) seem to bring two types of attention to the world:

  • the first is a narrow-focused attention to things that we already know to be important. When in this mode we can abstract the object of our attention and ignore everything else.
  • the second is a much broader focus which is alert to the unexpected, the new or the incongruous.

The real kicker though, is that we appear to only be able to bring one type of attention to anything at once.

Why? It may be an energy-saving mechanism. Brains are expensive to run in terms of energy. They may only represent 2% of our body weight, but they take up around 20% of the energy we consume. Saving energy here would be an evolutionary advantage!

This effect has been demonstrated numerous times by authors like Chris Chabris (the invisible gorilla guy) who carried out an experiment based on Kenneth’s experience and discovered that around half of people didn’t see the fight.

Happily for Kenneth, he was exonerated in 2005 and awarded $647,000 in back pay – without ever going to prison.

So, if we are trying to interrupt people who are doing other things, we need to try pretty hard. Predictable, familiar approaches are simply not going to cut it if we want people to see something new.

How being distinctive helped a new chocolate company enjoy run-away success

You just might have heard of Tony’s Chocolonely – a relatively new chocolate company. And you might be wondering how its success relates to healthcare.

Tony’s was set up in 2005 by a Dutch journalist who was determined to make chocolate 100% free from the use of child labour. To raise attention to the issue, he even took himself to court for knowingly buying chocolate made with slave labour.

Now, with a turnover of €70 million, Tony’s Chocolonely is the biggest chocolate brand in the Netherlands. It has a market share of around 19% and growth of 27% compared to last year.

Clearly, the purpose of the company has been key to its success. For consumers, an association with a worthy cause means a great deal. But we all know that purpose alone is not enough for an unknown brand to make this scale of impact.

What else drove the success?

Well, Tony’s Chocolonely blatantly ignored the rules of what chocolate bars should be like. Their first bar was red – a colour that few other manufacturers have ever chosen for plain milk chocolate.

Furthermore, the chocolate itself is divided into a random pattern. So it looks unlike any no other chocolate bar. This unequal pattern is deliberate – it represents the inequality at play in the global cocoa production industry. The flavours are unique too – including Milk Caramel Sea Salt, Dark Milk Pretzel Toffee and White Raspberry Popping Candy.

So what can healthcare learn from this?

There are several key take-outs for brands looking to get noticed by healthcare professionals.

As with all brands and sectors, your story really needs to mean something to your audience. Tony’s did this by being authentic. Remember the old adage: No sound bites without substance.

Most importantly, however, is the need to be distinctive. Being distinctive allowed Tony’s to penetrate a mature market packed with numerous “stronger” competitors.

By being distinctive, brands in any industry can draw the attention of customers and influencers and open their eyes to the reasons to choose us over the competition.

Why do customers sometimes seem blind to your new messaging?

Ever wondered why customers haven’t noticed new information about your brand? Why it’s so difficult to change an established position in their minds?

Maybe it’s not because they won’t, it’s more that they can’t.

Our evolutionary history has always been about us as a species, learning and trying new things. But if that had been done without limits, the sheer number of failed experiments would have killed us all off long ago. That’s why there are guard rails built in to prevent this.

Once we’ve found something that works for us in a particular scenario, we tend to use that as our default position. This reduces the need for repeated risk taking, which could be prejudicial to our surviving long enough to reproduce.

Enter the uncertainty principle and negative transfer.

The uncertainty principle (not the Heisenberg one) states that people will pay more attention to stimulus that’s unfamiliar to them. They don’t recognise it and can’t predict what it means. So they will continue to pay attention until they feel that they know what it means.

At this point they not only stop learning about this particular stimulus, they are actively inhibited from doing so through negative transfer.

A common example of this is drivers who learned to drive in an automatic car. They often struggle more with a manual car than those drivers learning to drive for the very first time.

This concept is incredibly useful from a marketing perspective. If you are a major market leader, having your customers in a state of negative transfer is perfect as they aren’t looking to learn anything new about the problem you are solving for them.

So, if you want to communicate something new about your brand, you’ll have to do it in a way that your customers notice in order to push them back into uncertainty. Beware though, introducing the uncertainty principle at this point could destabilise your whole position, allowing your competitors to gain attention.

Find out how wethepeople can help you to use these principles and improve your communications whilst avoiding some of the pitfalls.

Implementing the reward mechanism to encourage behaviour change

As grown-ups in the 21st century, we are all patently aware of what we should do to live a healthier life. So why is there still a large proportion of the population that seems unable to do the right thing and make the correct decisions for their health?

A couple of things in this statement bear further scrutiny.

First is the vaguely judgemental tone employed by those of us involved in the healthcare industry to express our frustration. We tend to do this when large swathes of the population don’t take their medication, won’t increase activity, won’t eat the right food and won’t quit smoking. However, our judgment is often based on what we would do. This assumption makes us victims of what’s known as the false consensus effect. This is an attributional cognitive bias where we believe that our own personal beliefs, opinions, behaviours, likes and dislikes are also normal for most other people. Unfortunately, that bias is often reinforced by reflection from our friends and colleagues in our industry. The reality is very different.

The truth is that only a small proportion of the population actually spends its waking and working hours thinking about its health. Now let’s look at it from another, incredibly obvious, point of view. A lot of positive health behaviours, especially those that many people REALLY need to adopt, aren’t particularly attractive. Why? Simply because they often involve doing less of stuff that people like and more of stuff that they really don’t want to do.

Which brings us to the second thing.

Rewards are only rewards if they feel good to people. Again, from a healthcare industry perspective, what could feel better than a new personal best on a Strava segment, or smashing my 25,000-step record on Fitbit? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Non-health obsessed people (i.e. most of the population) are constantly expected and encouraged to replace things that have a built-in reward with something for which the reward is completely and utterly intangible. Reducing the odds of something bad happening at some unspecified time in the future does not get those dopamine juices flowing in quite the same way as a nice carb and fat laden meal, a drink, a cigarette or a Victory Royale in Fortnite. Tragically however, none of these aforementioned delights will do much to improve anyone’s type 2 diabetes, for example…

The key to making differences here is to make rewards for healthy behaviour relevant to the audience in whom we are interested, rather than to us. Harnessing the reward mechanisms in our brains is very helpful here. The interesting thing is that the way we process reward doesn’t appear to differ for real or virtual rewards. Creating surrogate, virtual rewards that are immediate for healthy behaviours is a powerful way to reward behaviour change. The most important thing to do here is to define rewards that our audiences find attractive and to keep changing and adding to those rewards over time to maintain interest.

So you’ve set yourself a New Year’s resolution…

So, you’ve set yourself a New Year’s resolution… That’s great, but how do you turn this expressed desire into a real, lasting improvement? The evidence for successful adoption of New Year’s resolutions isn’t encouraging. According to Forbes overall success is about 8%. However, before we abandon any hope of self-improvement let’s look at ways we can change our habits. Erasmus wisely said that “A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit.” This view is supported by our increasing knowledge in neuroscience.

Why we form habits

We form habits, essentially, to save precious energy. The brain consumes energy at 10 times the rate of the rest of the body per gram of tissue. Even at rest it uses around 20% of the total consumed energy of the human body. So, anything that automates processes and reduces that demand is of great evolutionary benefit. Habits are about short cuts. The more often we repeat them the more likely it is that we will do it the next time without even thinking about it. They are automated processes that, with each repetition, are wired further into our neurones. So how do we form good habits?

  • Step 1:  Understand what triggers your current habits. To change a habit, you first need to recognise what triggers that response? Does receiving a deadline for a major project trigger immediate procrastination?
  • Step 2:  Decide which behaviours you would like to become your new habit. For example, would you like to replace the procrastination with an immediate period of outline planning? Be very specific.
  • Step 3:  Decide how you are going to reward yourself for each successful deployment of your new behaviour. Rewards are important. The establishment of habit is closely linked to dopamine reward, which is often how we get into bad habits. Problem gambling is strongly linked to this mechanism. Augmenting the brain’s reward system helps establish the new habit.

So, try this. Imagine you’ve received a deadline. You’ve immediately done some rough planning and role allocation. Try going out and getting a coffee or having a 5-minute walk… or something else simple that you enjoy doing. Repeated often enough, your brain will rewire your neurones to create a new habit to replace the old one, giving you the best chance to be one of the 8% who succeed over time. Good luck!