What marketers can learn from the SAGE 9 step COVID-19 behavioural change plan

It was March 2020, the impact of COVID-19 on the UK population was serious and before we knew we were facing a pandemic and the whole nation was being asked to behave in ways they have never been asked before. To social distance.

The daunting task ahead of the government was ensuring blanket population adherence to a set of social distancing measures previously unheard of. At the beginning of lockdown, there was mass confusion and a misunderstanding of what the rules were. I mean, who had heard of social distancing before 2020?! The government suddenly realised that the current communications were proving to be unsuccessful.

Change was needed and it was needed quickly.  In stepped SAGE, a government advisory body which is made up of not only the countries leading medical scientists but also leading behavioural scientists. Very quickly a sophisticated process and plan was proposed to the government. A plan and methodology that marketers can learn from.

Getting a group of people to change their behaviour according to your narrative is most definitely the dream of every marketer. So what were the recommendations to the government from the scientists who study human behaviour on a daily basis? In this guide we have taken the highlights of the full report given to the government by SAGE.

The advice to the government is based on the 9 broad pillars of achieving behavioural change:-

  1. Education
  2. Persuasion
  3. Incentivisation
  4. Coercion
  5. Enablement
  6. Training
  7. Restriction
  8. Environmental restructuring
  9. Modelling

The advice focused on the pillars that were deemed most relevant to this particular plan.


Specificity: The guidance at the time of advice had lacked clarity and specificity with regards to how people were to behave. At the time the language used include words and phrases such as “try to”. “as much as is practicable” “non-essential” and “gathering” are all open to interpretation. Therefore the recommendation was to be behaviourally specific: Who needs to do what and why. To use words such as “do” instead of “try to”.

These were to be communicated through channels that could also provide more personalised advice such as SMS messaging and an interactive website.


Perceived threat: Many groups of people at the time did not feel personally threatened, this could be down to a low death rate in their age group. It was noted that a good understanding of risk was found to be associated with adoption of social distancing in Hong Kong.

It was therefore recommended that the perceived level of threat needed to be increased in those that were complacent, and to achieve this the government was to use hard hitting emotional messaging. To be most effective this was to be coupled with empowering people to take action to reduce the risk.

Responsibility to others: It was found that there was a lack of understanding on how individual actions could impact transmission of the disease to others. Clear messaging that articulated this was needed.

Positive messaging around actions: Showing people the positive results of their actions on the wider community and that their actions make a difference.

Tailoring/Personalisation: Different people will react positively to different messages. The messaging itself also needs to be realistic about people’s lives and take into account the varying motivational levers.


Social approval: To have the approval of communities or peers can be a powerful source of reward. This can be achieved by highlighting examples of good practice and providing strong social encouragement, this has a spill over effect of promoting social cohesion.


Compulsion: Experience with UK enforcement legislation had proven successful in the past, such as compulsory seat belt use, rapid change can be achieved.

Social disapproval: It has been proven that social disapproval from ones community can play an important role in preventing anti-social behaviour. However, there’s a fine line – the messaging needs to be avoid victimisation and misdirected criticism.


Community resourcing: As people are being asked to give up valued activities and access to many resources for a long period of time, the government needed to ensure this was compensated by having access to other activities and also food. It was essential that this was communicated clearly.

Reducing inequity: The government also needed to quickly communicate how it was helping those who were already disadvantaged. It was essential that these pockets of the population were well identified and steps were made to mitigate the adverse impact on their lives.

So what are the key takeaways for marketers?

  1. Identify your objectives
  2. Understand your audiences
  3. Use data to drive your segments and profiles for targeting
  4. Educate – a better understanding can lead to better response
  5. Personalise the messaging to the audience, but also showing you understand this audience, their needs and any special circumstances
  6. Be specific. Use clear and concise language
  7. Use social proof to enhance the messaging
  8. Use messaging that articulates the impact on the consumers lives or the lives of the community around them
  9. Use a multichannel approach that delivers the highest impact and reach
  10. That if you don’t get it right first time, there’s nothing wrong with changing!

Was this new plan successful? In terms of getting most people to adhere to the social distancing rules., on the most part yes. However, as the rules and messaging started to change, due to relaxing of social distancing, we are starting to see the confusion again, leading to pockets of the population not understanding what the rules really are and a surge of new cases. The government needs to ensure they are consistent with the clarity, personalisation and messaging for a long time to come.

Meet the author

Komal Helyer

VP Marketing

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