Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisation, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Richard Bordenave.
Richard is co-founder of BVA Nudge-unit, and current CEO of its APAC branch sitting in Singapore. Graduated from a French Business School with a Marketing specialization at the Fashion Institute of Technology - New-York, Richard has spent 15 years in Marketing roles for MNC’s such as Danone, United-Biscuits or Mondelez in Europe. After successive senior positions in Marketing & Innovation, Richard has joined the Market Research & Insight industry, as Innovation and Client service director for BVA Group (one of the Top 10 Global Insight players) in 2009. Early passionate of Behavioural Science he has been leading a global transformation team at BVA. Concurrently, Richard has served clients such as The French government (SGMAP), BNP PARIBAS, Google, Orange or Nestlé. Richard co-founded the BVA Nudge-Unit in 2013, incubating it within his team. Soon becoming a separate business entity under the presidency of Eric Singler, BVA Nudge-Unit further expanded in UK, US, Chile. Richard has been operating BVA Nudge-unit in Asia since 2019.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
Well, I have a disclaimer: I’m not a behavioural scientist. I’m a passionate marketer, who discovered behavioural science at a time when there was no such structured academic path as today. Consumer psychology classes at best. I have spent couple of years growing global brands and launching -mostly-successful new products. I have always been obsessed in understanding why shoppers would try them in store, or not. Or why they would decide to repurchase them. In FMCG, there are tons of behavioural data, whatever the country, so the market response -success or failure- happens fast, like F stands for. Hence my learning curve was steep!
That’s how I came to challenge the relevance of questionnaire-based research, and focus groups to predict behaviours. I realised, early enough, that you can’t rely on what people say, to predict what they will do. Because the context, like the shelves or on-line navigation, plays a critical role in fast decision making. And most consumers are deciding in autopilot mode. As I’m a bit of a nerd, I explored academic research to understand why, particularly visual and interface research. I discovered Anne Treisman and later Daniel Kahneman (her husband), not to forget Amos Tversky (his co-author) and I was convinced these insights would revolution Marketing and Market-research.
This led me to write a book in 2004 (Brand & Consumers: the divorce) to share my discoveries with the French Marketing community. And from there my career changed. I met Eric Singler, GM at BVA, and former CEO of IN VIVO BVA one of the few behaviour-based research practice using lab approach with Mock-up stores & Eye-tracking. Eric offered me to join BVA group in 2009, and 12 years after I’m still part of this adventure. Since then, the whole Market research industry has shifted into behavioural science as the new normal. And I tend to think that in France, I have played my part in this change when in charge of Marketing the company uniqueness. Today BVA is still leading the way.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist? And what do you still want to achieve?
Well, when I joined BVA in 2009, thanks to Eric I met Etienne Bressoud, a former academic researcher and teacher, with a Marketing Science PhD. No wonder why we got along very well: his thesis was about the consumer intention – behaviour gap. Etienne joined the innovation team that I oversaw to support BVA transformation and client’s innovation. We learnt how to complement each-other extremely well: creating the first System1-System2 internal consulting organisation. Thanks to my Client background I’m more system1. I love reframing issues from a user point of view, drawing assumptions from experience, and make the most of scarce resources. Etienne used to be more system 2: sourcing science facts, creating research designs, or inventing models to solve behavioural questions. This combination of practitioners and academic skills appeared to be a key success-factor for our consulting services.
As we were following the academic development of BeSci, the book Nudge came-out in 2008, and the BIT was soon created in the UK. That’s how the idea of a BVA Nudge-unit consulting entity shaped-up. We had the opportunity of piloting a project for the French government and got numerous rewards for it. That has raised interest in BeSci from many of our BVA private clients. Looking at the development of the BIT in the public sector, we decided to incubate our Nudge-Unit with a focus on the private sector, where most of BVA insights clients are.
So yes, being one of the co-founders of the BVA Nudge-Unit, with Eric and Etienne, is probably one of the things I’m really proud of. It is also the reason why I’m now in Asia, to grow the baby with our sister companies having offices there (Like PRS-INVIVO or BVA-BDRC). And it’s a great opportunity to push the limits of BeSci navigating in other cultures.
If you were not a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
The answer may surprise you. I’d probably be a magician. In my early 20’s I had considered to drop my studies to start a show-business career. As a teenager I had studied visual arts and close-up magic for a few years. And after winning some competitions, I made a business of lecturing about human attention, and created tricks that were distributed worldwide. It happens I ended-up doing Marketing, and Nudge in the end. But when I think about it, it is relatively easy to connect the dots. When you are passionate about something, you always find a way to turn it into something valuable for others. And what I have learnt in managing audiences behaviours has helped me quite a lot in all my career. Now I wish I could foresee in the future what will be my next life!
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
Well, you know, I’m not good at self-help prescriptions. It may work for some people, but apart from hiding chocolate cookies from my sight, I feel like miserable trying to impose myself tons of Snuges - “Self-Nudges” as Thaler calls them. And I know I’m not the only one. I guess because it suggests that my willpower is not as good as the one of Behavioural scientists 😊 “How come you don’t have enough gritt”, “why don’t you manage your distractions”, “be more mindful” … Injunctions to happiness or recipes for performance are often putting me off!
It always reminds the Fable of “Munchhausen pigtail” that I studied during my systemic certification classes: Lord Munchausen was trying to pull himself out of a damp by pulling his own hair. A bit like us: we often have the illusion that we can extract ourselves from a system we participate in because we have the knowledge or the willpower. My experience is that without external help, it’s hardly manageable. And system theories, and the book of Watzlawick I borrowed this story from, would confirm this.
The Palo Alto school of thought was actually very useful in my personal life. But is it Behavioural Science? For me it should: behaviours can be changed dramatically by changing family or group dynamics, not just context. During tough moments in my life, I have realized the power of external help, call it coaching, therapy, or caregiving. It can literally transform you, and your behaviours: which is often the starting point to change other people’s behaviours. And avoid the patronizing bias.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I think there is still a massive opportunity to help private companies embrace the value of Behavioural Science for business. But Behavioural Scientists shouldn’t try to do what existing functions are already doing well. Many human centric methods, handling behavioural data, like UX, Design Thinking, Digital Marketing, are already delivering behaviour change solutions: to increase performance, satisfaction, or sales. And behavioural science learnings are currently being embedded in their practices.
So my number one advice, if you want to work in the private sector is: after you have learnt behavioural science, learn a business major, and make sure you like it! Could be Marketing, Sales, HR, Customer Insights… You can also specialize yourself in a business-related domain, like you are doing remarkably with Money Merle. Then you build your legitimacy to bridge people’s talent when joining a team, to solve a specific customer issue. And that will be required to tackle strategic issues such as encouraging adoption of sustainable products, accelerating digital adoption minimizing cyber-risks, or re-inventing hybrid and inclusive workplace, just to name a few.
I have seen pure academic profiles joining private organisations and having a hard time. Because they haven’t realised that academic and business goals, although complementary, are very distinct. And because golden standards that are valued in the public sector, often do not work in the private one. Efforts are not placed in same areas, nor the value of work. You first need to understand what the business requires, how decisions are made, and what good-enough means to add value to your organisation. Only then can you leverage your existing knowledge to grow the role and your impact.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
The academic side may evolve into more fundamental research as organizations equip themselves with applied units. This is the natural sense of the history when a domain is getting institutionalized: Research and Development are splitting. One the one hand you have the search for knowledge (and publication), and on the other, applied use of it to solve real life problems. I personally think we need both, but not trying to mix them too much. And we need both on business topics too. If you look at Covid consequences, I’m just fearing ending-up with an indigestion of papers on how to encourage vaccinations, and not enough on how to accelerate digital channel adoption.
With Covid and resulting synchronic behaviours across the globe, we have entered another type of change: a Change “level 2” if I refer to Gregory Bateson typology (Ecology of mind). So to me the systemic, dynamic, and cultural nature of these changes will require new conceptual tools on top of those currently available (may be too much focused on the individuals stimulus-response, not enough on collective dynamics). It will also need more digital technology and data.
Without clearly partnering with other fields of research beyond social sciences, such as anthropology, system dynamics, multiplayer game theory, digital marketing, network science, just to name a few, I doubt that a single school of thought can overcome the challenges next generations will have to tackle. Just as behavioural economics was born from an hybridization (psychology + economics), the broader field of behavioural science today needs to foster more collaborations, and leverage the diversity of talents across the globe. Only then can we see emerging the next generation of scientists that will help us transition in the new world that is shaping-up under our very eyes. Complexity of human behaviour deserves diverse great minds to work together, including more geographies and cultures. To make a comparison, Behavioural Science is bit like Healthcare today: it will have its multi-layers of specialists and generalists, organised around some mix of cultural and science-based beliefs.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by? I’d love to hear more scientists from Asia, and more working in the Private Sector. Like Preety KS at Grab, Kate Miller at Standard Chartered bank. Or from Public sector like Yee Siang Chng at Ministry of Sustainability SG, or multicultural academics like Murali Chandrashekaran, Beryl Chang… Not to forget my Colleague Etienne Bressoud on Nudging Education, and Eric Singler on infusing behavioural Science in organisations.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Richard! Always good to see the interaction between marketing and behavioural science!
As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews!
Keep your eye on Money on the Mind!