One of the core functions of marketing and advertising is to influence people’s behaviours. It’s why, as brand marketers and agency execs, we invest so much time, money and resources in the messaging, content creative and experiences, in the pursuit of persuading people to buy our products or engage with our services.

However, according to Marcus Collins, SVP of social engagement at Doner Advertising and Sunday’s opening keynote speaker on the Cannes Lions 2017 Forum stage, the one influencing factor that often gets overlooked is the frame within which we find ourselves.

“If we can better understand the design of our environment, we can manipulate this space in order to influence how people respond,” Collins told delegates. “To do this we must leverage the psychological motivators that impact what we do, say and share in an effort to engineer culturally contagious ideas that extend across both the online world and the offline world.”

To explain this rationale, Collins focused on four areas of our environment, which we have the power to alter and manipulate.

  1. The Defaults

In the digital world, the default setting of Facebook is for our profiles to be public. If it wasn’t, the social networking platform would find it harder to achieve its goal of connecting and sharing everybody’s content. The defaults of our surroundings can be readjusted for a desired outcome.

Take global rates of organ donors for example. Some cultures have close to 100% donation rates whereas other countries have very low rates. Studies have shown that this difference is triggered by whether people are asked to opt-in or opt-out of organ donation when applying for a driving licence. If you have to opt-into something, you’re more likely not to do it. So if you’re asked to opt-out of something, human behaviour dictates that you’re also more likely not to do it.

By manipulating the defaults therefore, we can influence the desired outcome.

  1. Semiotics

How we interpret everyday signs and how they effect our behaviours is called semiotics.

If you find two identical videos on YouTube for example but one has millions of more views than the other, you will instinctively watch the more popular one. How we engineer the semiotics of our online or offline environment will influence how people behave.

Volkswagen for example, has a philosophy called The Fun Theory, dedicated to the belief that making something more fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour.

In the past, it has carried out activities including transforming the stairs of a subway station in Stockholm into a piano keyboard to see if commuters would use them more than the adjacent escalator.

  1. Placements

How something is arranged or placed in our environment can sway human behaviour. It happens within retail all the time. In order to buy everyday products such as milk and bread, we will always have to navigate our way to the furthest reaches of the supermarket, because that retail brand knows there is more chance that we’ll put other items into our shopping baskets along the way.

Collins showed Cannes Lions delegates the example of Canon placing billboards that shared photography tips and techniques in key areas of New York, where research suggested that higher densities of tourists stopped to take photos.

  1. Nuances

“If we can truly influence the nuances of culture, we can induce behavioural change,” Collins told delegates. “Culture is defined as the shared beliefs, artefacts, rituals and the language we use. It is not a foosball table in the office.”

These nuances may seem obvious when someone points them out but brands consistently get it wrong.

Pepsi for example ran a commercial showing Kendall Jenner quitting a photo-shoot to join a peace protest and singlehandedly bridging the gap between protestors and police by offering a can of Pepsi to riot police. The people of Baltimore in America, who had had their own experience confronting riot police just two years earlier took to social media to ridicule this brand approach.

“It’s never obvious until someone points it out, which is why we should all be trying harder to understand these nuances of the human psyche,” Collins concluded. “The frames within which we exist matter and if we can better understand them, we can use them to our advantage.”