Here’s your brief: You are to create a sign that will be posted in public that needs to do one thing – change behaviour.
You can determine the shape of the sign, but it must include only three colours (or less), one graphic and up to three letters or numbers.
Now, remember your audience will be very distracted as they come across your sign. They could be in a life threatening situation, and have milliseconds to process your message. Are you up to the challenge?
Oh, and I forgot to say what type of the behaviour it is that you need to change.
I’m talking about the speed sign.
Yes, that humble marker that advises us of the speed limit on roadways.
It’s something we come across everyday, it changes our behaviour as a result (accelerate or decelerate) and yet it doesn’t even register a blip on our conscious thinking. And this strikes me as a good illustration of marketing and design principles.
So, what are the lessons of the speed sign?
1. Consistently distinguishable
Speed signs consistently comprise a white background, red circle with black numbers.
It is the same across Australia, so that the consumer has no ambiguity to process when confronted with the sign. Furthermore, there is no mistaking a speed sign for another road message because the ‘branding’ is strong and differentiated from other road signs.
So, what advertising does this remind you of? (Here’s a tip. They sell Big Macs.)
2. Clarity and certainty
Both in the design elements and the behaviour expected, speed signs are unambiguous in what they convey.
The consumer is forced to respond to the designated speed without further consideration. On the road, it’s important that the mind be directed because distraction can be deadly. (Hmm, did they really mean 60? Honey, what do you think it meant.)
No, it’s clear that 60 is 60, 40 is 40, 100 is 100.
So what can we learn from this? If you are trying to get people to do something – buy your product for example – be clear!
Of course, there are also good lessons in how not to be clear.
Think back for a second to Tourism Australia’s maligned campaign: “Where the Bloody Hell Are you?” (Ummm, sorry….what’s that and where’s that?) Or more recently, Microsoft’s “To the cloud!” ads. (Hmmm, what exactly is it and why are we going there? )
Neither of these examples present a clear and certain message that the customer can easily follow.
3. Targeted audience
Speed signs are targeted at drivers, and only when driving.
Speed signs do not try to appeal to everyone: “Hey, look at me, dog-walker – you can only do 60 kms/hour here!”
They do not try to haunt me as I sleep: “Hey, remember me, that 80 km/hr sign you saw on Nepean Highway? Wasn’t I the best sign ever?!”
And they do not appear in irrelevant locations – say, like in a park.
In other words, speed signs are targeted to their audience. While it doesn’t cost that much for that extra sign to be placed in the Botanic Gardens, the audience is not right and it’s proper to say no. Imagine if the sign was placed in a stupid spot – the harm to the credibility and clarity of the message it would do?
Why then as marketers do we fall into the intoxicating promise of ‘extra reach’ by a placement of our product or ad somewhere that is not right for our objectives?
Think it doesn’t happen? Tune into the inevitable Christmas sale ads on Boxing Day to see what I mean.
4. Moment of truth
The sign only works — for the large part — because it is one element of a bigger context: road rules, policing, education, reinforcement (penalty rather than reward in this case).
But whilst the road sign by itself may not be able to change behaviour as a single media with a singular tone and message, it is the ultimate point of behavioural impact — the moment of truth.
The lesson here? The speed sign is placed where it is because that’s when behaviour is required to change.
Think of it like Coke’s points of interruption in a convenience store where signage cues you to buy a Coke as you step into the store, head to the fridge and slap your money down on the counter. In order for those points of interruption to sway the consumer’s behaviour, the rest of Coca-Cola’s marketing and product chain have to work to establish the purchase context.
So, the humble speed sign belies its marketing expertise: its ability to change behaviour at 60 kms/hour through differentiation, clarity, audience targeting and precision placemen
Now that sounds like an effective marketing campaign to me!
Bri Williams is a product development and consumer analytics professional who uses her blog, People Patterns, to explore behavioural insights and observations for marketers. Follow Bri at @peoplepatterns. Image by Travis Walton