I recently ran across a fantastic Will Rogers quote that’s now among my handful of favorites. “There are three kinds of people. Ones that learn from reading, a few who learn by observation and the rest of them who have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves.”
Truth is, we all learn through each of those ways, but some behavioral scientists posit that personal experience is the single most powerful form of persuasion.
Here’s a story I keep running across that brilliantly illustrates the point. In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences reported that medical injuries were the eighth leading cause of death in this country, killing between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans a year. This statistic alarmed Dr. Don Berwick, a clinical professor of pediatrics and health care policy at Harvard Medical School, and head of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. That December, he stood before thousands of his colleagues and issued a challenge that seemed Everest-like in its ambition.
“I think we should save 100,000 lives. I think we should do that by June 14, 2006,” he said, pausing dramatically. “By 9 a.m.”
What happened next is a great marketing case study. Dr. Berwick didn’t leave it at that. He personalized the situation by telling the story of a young girl who died of dehydration at Johns Hopkins Hospital after suffering serious burns. Her name was Josie King, and Dr. Berwick described her life, her interests, and her tragic story. He made it personal. He made his audience care.
He then asked each medical professionals to go back to their organizations and examine the last 50 deaths. Personally. And to ask three vital questions: how did these patients die? Were they expected to die? What could have prevented their deaths? Delegation was not allowed – this was to be a hands-on experience.
Several months later, these same medical professionals returned, some in tears, with their results. The exercise opened their eyes to the truth, removed their previously intractable objections and denials, and set off a period of improved hospital safety. In fact, the campaign has worked so well that the IHI has upped its goal to 5 million lives worldwide.
In a related story, some doctors and nurses didn’t believe they were spreading germs – they believed they were washing their hands thoroughly, according to accepted standards. So, their hands were swabbed and the resulting images of bacteria growth in auger dishes were shared – some ending up as colorful screen savers. The problem of clean hands became very personal. And very visible.
The parallel with living a more sustainable, less energy intensive life is strong. There are lots of alarming numbers, global scenarios, abstract language and looming deadlines. What we need to do as effective marketers is make it personal and make it visible. For instance, “Yes, those terrible allergies you’re experiencing this spring are caused by climate change.” We need to show individuals that yes, they are part of the problem and part of the solution. Emphasize the hope, and keep the blame to a minimum. Tell a story instead of spouting off cold, hard, impersonal facts. Put a face on the story. Use emotion. And put a deadline on the goal that’s not so far in the future that it seems unreachable.
If we create opportunities for people to transcend “reading” (as Will Rogers called it) and move more into the realm of personal experience, we all stand a better chance of creating more sustainability advocates and brand ambassadors. This calls for a broader view of advertising and marketing – one that cannot be contained only in vicarious experiences like media – but one that we must bravely invent and patiently watch as personal experience begins to spark behavior change.