Live chat with marketing professor Alan Tapp

Here’s our latest chat write-up with Alan Tapp, who is a professor in marketing and behaviour change at UWE in Bristol. He works mainly in researching and understanding why people behave the way they do, and how it may be possible to change these behaviours in positive ways. He has worked in lots of areas of public life ranging from smoking cessation through to promoting physical activity, self-checking for cancer and promoting breastfeeding! Which must have been really interesting and challenging, quoting his very words:

“Breastfeeding.. I used to sit in meetings with my colleagues who were all experienced women. Every now and then I would make a suggestion. They would look over, laugh, and then get on with solving the problem..”

Q: How do you get people to switch to cloth when they perceive it to be virtuous and therefore difficult? Lots of my friends say “Oh you’re so good using cloth” but have no intention of doing so themselves even though they obviously think it would be a good thing to do. So how can we get round this, particularly because it feeling like a good thing to do is actually an important reason for some people using cloth?
Alan: I can see that switching to cloth is a tricky ask. It might look to the mums like hard work, and of course there’s a huge commercial marketing machine telling us all that disposables are easy and ‘normal’. Cloth nappies might make the mums feel like an outsider/ worried they will be seen as ‘weird’ by other mums. My work in other areas suggests that doing things for environmental/planet earth etc reasons will only attract a small minority of people (less than 10% and maybe much less than that). So, the best way to influence cloth take up may be to market it primarily on its practicality? But how true is this? How practical is cloth compared to disposables? Another toute may be to market it on low cost, cheaper than disposables.
@Alan: Practical advantages: no bin full of poo, no running out of disposables at midnight when the shops are shut.
Alan: By ‘practical’ in my earlier post I meant convenient/easy. Can cloth compete with disposables on convenience/ease/price?
@Alan: I’d say definitely cheaper in the long run. I saved loads on disposables that would have been used at nursery by sending cloth nappies in.
Alan: I have two kids and can well remember how expensive disposables are. So price might be a big lever for you to push this. But £100 upfront? That’s a lot. Maybe there is a way to bring down this upfront cost.
@Alan: Depending on what kind of nappies you choose, you can spend less than £100 up front. But also, it could easily be a lot more.
@Alan: Bringing cost down – you can buy pre-loved, and there are council incentive schemes that give you for example £50 back, but they seem to be disappearing now.
Alan: Does cloth increase the amount of washing/machine usage? if so, this is another issue to overcome.
@Alan: We surveyed our group members and most wash nappies every other day or every third day. So it does increase washing, but not as much as people might think.
Alan: Washing times/frequency: that might be a good angle – if you think there are misconceptions then you have a good message to go out with: correcting these misconceptions. But back to price and this £100 upfront vs. long term savings business: my experience is that economic logic might suggest use cloth but that people will be put off by the £100 even though logically they should be happy to pay less over the longer term. People aren’t very good at thinking long term!

Q: Is there a tipping point for the number of people doing something a bit different for it to appeal, and make you not feel like an outsider?
Alan: Yes there is, but the exact tipping point is not well researched and in any event will vary for each activity. My guess is that if a group of 10 mums are together chatting and say 3 are using cloth then that is enough to get over this business of ‘norms’. I suspect this weird norms/tipping point issue is much more important than we might think. I’m really guessing here, but is it the case that ‘mainstream’ society regards cloth nappies as a bit hippy/green/treehuggy?!
@Alan: I guess the tipping point will also vary person to person? e.g. some people like to do new things or whatever, so will start doing it when only 10% of people they know are doing it. Whereas other people are more cautious, and will only start doing something new when most people are doing it.

In response to the tree-hugging comment someone commented that “yes, cloth nappies are seen as a bit of a hippy/treehugging thing by many. We spoke to a social scientist who had done focus groups with cloth and disposable users and she said that ‘Perceived subjective norms were an important reason for using disposables. Although several disposable users said they knew of others who used cloth, such examples conformed to prevailing stereotypes about cloth nappy users as hippie types. These were not role models they felt they could identify with'”

Q: How much influence do other family members have? I know that my husband does not like to feel different (would much rather do disposables), but knows not to go against a stubborn me.
Alan: This is again a context specific thing. Other family issues are important for encouraging breastfeeding but you’d need to research cloth nappy issues. I would guess that yes, family support is important. For young mums, their mum may be more important than their husband/partner.
@Alan: Can it go the other way with family things? My family (as in parents, siblings) were totally on board with me breastfeeding and using cloth, but that’s what was done with us. My son’s dad, on the other hand, comes from a bottle-feeding, disposable using family and was not at all keen on either. He kept coming up with reasons why I’d find it difficult – net result, me even more determined and carrying on with gritted teeth through problems…
Alan: Yes I see your story illustrates how complex family support/lack of support can be. It is difficult to predict. In breastfeeding work we did ‘white working class’ mums had a lot of trouble with their mums expecting formula milk feeding.

Q: In regards to off-putting set up costs, I’ve been thinking that maybe libraries should do a sort of hire purchase scheme for nappies. You pay, say £5 a week to hire a nappy kit, but after X number of weeks you have bought it. Would that work do you think?
Alan: It may work for deprived communities where money is really tight. Sounds hard work to set-up but worth looking into for poor areas. But for middle-England, I doubt it will have much traction to be honest.
@Alan: What do you think might work for middle England then?
Alan: I think you are up against a big ‘convenience machinery’ – a culture of buying and disposing etc. This then becomes a ‘norm’ and a habit, which is tough to break. How would I break it? high profile cloth using celebrity to champion a campaign. Get a social movement going and get people to lead it who look and sound normal. My last comment is controversial but I work in promoting cycling and if a cyclist comes on the telly and sounds like they are from a sub-culture then people are just put off.
@Alan: Does anyone know of any celebrity type people who use cloth nappies (I’m not big on celeb culture, so I don’t have a clue…)
Alan: But the trouble with celebs is they are usually rich and so your average mum will reject the message because it is not believable. So you need a celeb who lives an ‘ordinary life’… I know: Kate Bush! Or the lead singer from Everything But The Girl.

Q: How many times does an idea have to be promoted for maximum uptake? And on the other hand is too much a bad thing and off putting?
Alan: Good question. If the idea is unappealing then 1000s of times will still not get a response. if the idea is appealing then you still need to repeat it many times before it gets through.

Q: What about men? They hardly seem to get mentioned, so would it be good to get them promoting nappies too? Or is that something to deal with later, given that this applies to most things to do with babies?
Alan: Men? hopeless. Just kidding… if we are talking about societal change and wanting men to get involved more I am all for it and of course it is slowly happening. But if we are talking marketing to shift to cloth then I doubt men have much of a role, because the decision making will lie almost 100% with the mum. And she is not influenced much by men in this regard I’m guessing…

Q: Is some of it about language, do you think? Like this constant ‘making mum’s life easier (Tesco), ‘proud sponsors of mums’ (P&G) subtly reinforcing the stereotypes? (It makes me want to scream. What’s wrong with just saying parents? Or in the case of P&G why single out parents at all, everyone cleans?!)
Alan: I am with you every step. Commercial marketers are a pain. It’s complex but they both respond to and reinforce societal norms. This is why social norms become so embedded and hard to shift. Tesco will change but only if forced to do so. It is not in their interests to lead social change on an issue like this. They will not support it. We have to force change through campaigning/social movements/changing society bottom-up … then they will respond.

Q: Can you talk about “nudges”? The government were using them at one point to encourage lifestyle change. Also I have a friend who believes that once people’s opinion is fixed, trying to actively change someone’s mind only fixes their opinion more firmly. For example the anti-vax lobby will always respond to criticism by using the Big Pharma argument and if pushed will say it’s parental choice. I’ve never known an anti vaxxer to change their mind once they have chosen that course (there are lots in my area). What is an effective way to manage conversations and try to offer an alternative opinion without embedding someone’s ideas more firmly?
Alan: The anti-vax effect you mentioned is called ‘reactance’ (they are wrong! Which makes anti-vaxxing really irritating) so this kind of thing can be influenced by for example anchoring technique, which means picking up on someone’s belief, and then finding a way of fitting your message to that belief. Don’t try and change the belief directly – it doesn’t work. Even if the belief, as with anti-vaxxing, is based on a lack of understanding. GPs are being trained now on shared decision making techniques and motivational interviewing. The latter being: find out what motivates the individual and then work with that, don’t try and inject a motive that isn’t there. As for nudges, the best chance with cloth would be to get in there before habits/norms are created. So, in the hospital new baby ward. Send in a free sample of cloth nappies and a quick lesson in how to use them! Tricky I know, you are up against the corporate Bounty machine.
@Alan: Can you explain that slightly more Alan, I’m not sure I understand? So, for example, with anti-vaxxing, you don’t challenge the belief ‘vaccines can harm my child’, but you find a way of ‘anchoring’ your own message to that belief?
Alan: Yes that’s pretty much it… in theory. Vaxxing is a very tricky area. It’s best not to challenge it directly, but softly. Emphasise how normal it is , how everyone else is vaxxing and ‘pass on your immunity’. It links back to their own vaccination when they were babies.

Thank you so much Alan for this absolutely fascinating chat, it really has given me lots of food for thought. I hope everyone else also enjoyed it and now, time to find a cloth nappy celebrity 😉

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