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Post-COVID-19 behaviour – the new normal or nothing new?

By Joe Marshall

Joe Marshall

At this point, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered almost every aspect of our daily lives.

But whether these changes represent a ‘new normal’ – a phrase so common within marketing and communications that it’s effectively become white noise – is another question entirely. And it’s a question that is especially pertinent from the perspective of the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors. How many of the changes to behaviour we’ve seen during lockdown will endure? Or will we just revert to pre-COVID-19 normality?

One way of answering this is through the filter of behavioural science. At Pegasus, we use the COM-B model. This is an established global framework developed by the University College London (UCL) Centre for Behaviour Change, which tells us that behaviour is made up of three parts – our capability, opportunity and motivation. In order to change any given behaviour we need to find the point of resistance within each of those categories and identify the biggest barrier to change.

Once we’ve identified this, it’s about selecting the right intervention, which is derived from a set of evidence-based techniques
that can be used to change behaviour. They include a range of approaches, from education to role modelling, that each work for specific barriers. In essence, it’s about picking the right tool for the job.

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic provides a useful illustration of behaviour change in practice. Clearly, good basic hygiene was key to reducing the spread of infection and so the public was asked to adopt new behaviours, like regularly washing their hands.

Despite the risk of infection, motivation was a core barrier and this necessitated a range of interventions. At the most basic level, education was a key intervention – ensuring people understood how to achieve good hygiene by washing their hands or discarding tissues.

Enablement also played an important role – singing happy birthday twice was a simple way to ensure that people washed their hands for the recommended 20 seconds. And this seemed to work in the short term – at the very least, the spike in sales of hand sanitiser suggested that people became much more attuned to their hygiene.

But will people continue this behaviour once the perceived risk of COVID-19 is lower and motivation once again becomes more of a barrier? It certainly seems that, in the medium term at least, they will. Research shows that a significant proportion of the UK public identify personal hygiene as important in protecting against the virus and, perhaps more importantly, many retailers are taking matters into their own hands by providing hand sanitiser stations throughout stores (environmental restructuring).

Interestingly, when it comes to wearing masks – something that a smaller proportion of the population sees as important – the government has already adopted coercion as an intervention, making it mandatory to wear them on public transport. It’s vital that these interventions are consistently and regularly delivered, acting as the frequent cues that are necessary to shift the new behaviours from conscious decisions to automatic habits.

These principles apply equally to challenges faced by the pharmaceutical sector. We’ve already seen the sector respond rapidly to lockdown, adapting to a world in which face-to-face visits from field reps and medical conferences are no longer possible. In fact, many sources suggest that the industry’s renewed emphasis upon digital communications has seen a greater depth of engagement from healthcare professionals (HCPs).

And, based on a recent review by Pegasus of quantitative data plus in-depth interviews, it’s clear that HCPs are not expecting engagement with pharma to simply revert to the way things were. Many state that while face- to-face meetings with both patients and reps remain valuable, there are also clear benefits to virtual meetings and digital communications in certain circumstances.

This suggests that a combination of external factors and interventions have already affected motivation, but whether or not this continues hinges on the type and frequency of future behavioural interventions. That might be anything from education to enablement depending on the behaviour and barriers in question.

And so, when conducting your own strategic planning, there will, as always, be a full range of consideration; from insight-gathering to channel planning, from objective setting to evaluation. Not least assessing your own capabilities as

an organisation – such as, what is feasible and appropriate for your post-COVID-19 business – but understanding these through the filter of behaviour science will mean you are able to identify the appropriate interventions to create the most impactful activity, giving you the best chance of achieving lasting behaviour change. Because even in this rapidly changing context, the principles behind behavioural science remain both constant and relevant.

Joe Marshall is a Senior Strategist at Pegasus, an Ashfield company, part of UDG Healthcare

In association with


30th July 2020


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