Behavioural Tech-heads: What technology needs to learn from behavioural science

Facebook’s new parent company name and logo, Meta
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Date 12 November
Author Ellie Jacobs
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For this month’s article we’re changing tact and we’re going to explore Facebook’s decision to rebrand – via a behavioural science lens – looking to understand whether it’s the right decision and what other tech brands can learn from their actions.

Facebook – From Hero to Zero

Recently Facebook went through a pivotal moment in its’ 17-year history. A rebrand. The umbrella company that owned some of the world’s biggest social media brands will now be called Meta.

But why has Mark Zuckerberg made this bold decision?

The party line is that the new name better reflects the shift in what the holding company does today, and where it sees itself going in the future – in short, building a meta universe of products and services not dissimilar to realities created in sci-fi novels like Ready Player One.

But cynics in the room point take a different standpoint. They highlight that Facebook is stuck in an endless cycle of bad news. From the poor handling of misinformation (e.g., Covid and Trump), evidence of domestic workers being sold via their platform, back peddling on plans to hide likes as testing identified it would hurt revenue - to name just a few. These events have affected the way people, other media outlets and government institutions see Facebook, from being the hero of communications to the anti-hero.

Therefore, these cynics tell us it makes sense for Facebook to create a wedge between what Facebook does and how it is seen – and other current brands they own (e.g., Instagram) and future investments. The logic here is that this will give them the necessary space to grow – without being anchored down the negativity that surrounds Facebook.

That wedge is Meta.

To understand whether his decision to do this will pay off, we’re going to examine its impact in two ways:

1.     How will this change the way people see Facebook?

2.     How accepting will people be of Meta? 

1. How will this change the way people see Facebook?

Let’s unpack the biases that will affect how accepting people will be of this change.

Let’s first talk about: Change

  • The relevance: When we’re unhappy with our life circumstances we want them to change. But, when we’re happy in our current situation, we want it to stay the same. This stems from our evolution, it’s for survival. When we’re happy, it signals there’s no threat to our survival, so we have a strong desire to keep things the same. For Facebook, this presents a challenge. With over 6.2 billion active users across Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram, it’s safe to assume there’s a very large group of consumers who’re content with Facebook.

  • The impact: Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to rebrand risks destabilising a large number of contented Facebook users. Whilst the platform remains the same, many may perceive the rebrand as an abrupt change to the brand’s core values.

Let’s then think about: Anchoring

  • The relevance: Anchoring is a behavioural science principle which dictates that we heavily rely on early pieces of information – the anchor(s) – that we are exposed to. Anchors heavily influence subsequent perception, judgements & decisions. The news coverage Meta receives in the next 6 months will be incredibly important to Meta’s success with consumers.

  • The impact: Perceptions of the brand will be anchored by its early coverage, setting expectations in the minds of consumers. This means if it’s over-sold, consumers will be disappointed. If it falls short of its promises, the brand will suffer from a lack of trust.

2. How accepting will people be of Meta?

There are also biases that will impact the way people will engage with and view Meta.

First and foremost, there is the: Affect heuristic

  • The relevance: The affect heuristic is where we rely on our emotions to guide us. When people say, “I don’t know, I just have a bad feeling about it”, they’re expressing a negative appraisal of ‘it’, guided by their emotions. For Meta, this may work in their favour when it comes to the tech-savvy consumer.

  • The impact: Consumers who are into their tech are likely to experience positive emotion at the prospect of the Metaverse, and these emotions will sometimes transfer onto the Meta brand consciously, but always unconsciously. It’s a spill-over effect of the brand’s tech-oriented ambition.

But let’s not forget the role of: Reference points

  • The relevance: Perception of change necessarily involves comparison – what the situation is now, and what the situation in changing to be. All comparison is perceived relative to reference points - benchmarks against which we determine benefits and costs of our options.

  • The impact: Despite best intentions, there is no getting away from the fact that consumers will compare Meta with Facebook. People generally know, are familiar with, and are content using Facebook. This means Meta already starts on the back foot – it’s new and unknown.

Implications for tech brands

So, what should Facebook (and other tech brands) do when faced with these challenges?

  • Change: To overcome people’s hesitation around change, brand communication is key – it must be communicated clearly and soundly that social connection is still at the centre of the brand ethos. Meta’s own platforms should be leveraged to communicate this message, preventing users feeling ostracised by the rebrand.

  • Anchoring: Early information received on an endeavour will always influence subsequent appraisal of that endeavour. So, it’s crucial for the brand that this information is in their favour. Honest and valid brand communication in these early days will be key. Important topics include exactly what the brand can/can’t offer and its level of continued connection to, or separation from Facebook.

  • Affect heuristic: To use the affect heuristic to their advantage, attempts should be made to drum up enthusiasm for the Metaverse. Among the tech-savvy, this will be relatively easy, but efforts should be made to engage those less into their tech. Not everyone loves tech and pushing the tech-sophistication memo simply won’t work for all. Or worse, it’ll backfire. It doesn’t really matter how this excitement is generated; it just matters that positive affect is elicited.

  • Reference points: Efforts should be made to distinguish the parent brand Meta from both its subsidiaries and its predecessor, Facebook. This will help consumers understand Meta as a new, separate entity, and avoids them comparing it to the too-well-known Facebook which holds such significant space in consumer’s minds.

Only time will tell whether Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to rebrand was the right one. However, if he follows our advice – both Facebook and Meta will be viewed in a better light.

Alexander Holmes
Research Director at Northstar Research Partners
Ellie Jacobs
Research Executive at Northstar Research Partners