The role of identity in influencing change (Part 2)

In a previous blog post I talked about the identity model of decision making put forward by Stanford Professor, James March.

The identity model says our decisions are based on how we see ourselves, and who we believe we are (or want to be). Any time we have a decision to make, we ask ourselves three questions:

  1. What kind of situation is this?
  2. What kind of person am I?
  3. What would someone like me do in this situation?

This concept can be really useful when we are trying to influence someone to change their behaviour – to make a different choice. Let me give you an example.

In 1985, after decades of collecting more and more rubbish from state highways, the Texas Department of Transportation challenged GSD&M, an Austin advertising agency, to help them create a campaign to reduce this.

What GSD&M found when they began researching the problem was that 18-35 year-old males were the group most likely to litter. When they did focus groups they found, as well as loving pick-up trucks, football and listening to loud music while driving, this group had a very high degree of pride for being Texan.

There you have it. The group that was the biggest contributors to the problem had a very strong view of who they were and the community they belonged too. This was the focus of what GSD&M put into place. They based the whole campaign around identity.

The campaign slogan they came up with was “Don’t Mess With Texas” and debuted in 1986 with the legendary Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. Seconds after it aired, the local networks were getting calls asking them to play the advert again and it just grew from there.

Over the last 30 years, this iconic campaign is credited with reducing litter in Texas by 72%. Before the campaign, Texas spent $2.33 per person for cleaning roads, and now the state spends only $1.90. It was even voted America’s favorite slogan, beating out Nike’s “Just Do it” a in a 2006 contest.

That is about as close as you get to behaviour change perfection, and it was all built around tapping into identity. It gave the answer to the question “What would a proud Texan do in this situation?” Well, the certainly wouldn’t throw their rubbish away. They wouldn’t mess with Texas.

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