Fire Beans, Firefighters and Fitness: Tapping Hidden Motivators of Change

Our fire beans are hot.

A simple animated video that Marketing for Change made for the National Volunteer Firefighter Council lit up their Facebook page last week. The video quickly outstripped the performance of other content, with more than 800 likes, nearly as many shares, 90,000 views, and playful but on-point comments from first responders.


How did this video strike a chord and draw attention to wellness, an issue that NVFC has struggled to make top-of-mind for firefighters?


Laddering is a qualitative research interviewing technique based on means-end theory that helps uncover the deeper, often hidden, meanings and motivations that influence behavior.

While traditional focus groups or interviews can easily identify the rational reasons influencing behavior, they rarely uncover non-conscious, intuitive or emotional reactions — the “System 1” thinking that Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has found drives 95% of decision-making.

The laddering technique encourages self-analysis of behavior and motivations. In doing so, it not only uncovers the rational or tangible drivers of behaviors, but also the more abstract psychological and social consequences. Our senior research manager, Zack Boileau, who can gently and persistently push research participants into revealing motivations they themselves didn’t know they had, notes that a laddering interview is “a lot like therapy.” (Crying is sometimes involved.)

At Marketing for Change, our Behavior Change Laddering Method combines laddering techniques with exercises that explore deeply held metaphors (such as balance, journey, and transformation) that provide further insight into subconscious thought. Lastly, we apply the 12 behavioral determinants that anchor our Fun Easy Popular approach. 

The result is a mental map that helps us identify what really drives behavior.



When NVFC approached Marketing for Change for help rebranding their wellness program, we used our Behavior Change Laddering Method to reveal the core values and behavioral drivers for volunteer firefighters. The first instinct is often to classify firefighters as heroes, and research participants themselves started off their interviews with a rational response about commitment to helping others. But our research revealed that firefighters’ higher values blend a sense of purpose through service with a self-standard of being able to learn skills that enable them to solve problems others can’t (within and outside of their fire-service work), along with a dedication to the second family that is their fire station and especially their crew.


Using these insights, we rebranded NVFC’s wellness program as Serve Strong, with deliberate callouts to firefighters’ desire to always be at the ready to not just serve the public but support their crew, whose lives may very well depend on their physical and mental well-being.

For firefighters who always put others’ needs before their own, Serve Strong is a reminder that taking care of themselves is an important part of taking care of their crew. Rather than taking a typical health and wellness approach by emphasizing education and risks, our campaign draws on the reasons they became firefighters in the first place.

serve strong campaign

With our fire bean video, humor also played a role in striking a chord. Humor, done well, can help break down defensive barriers when tackling thorny issues — like the fact that the No. 1 killer of on-duty firefighters is not fire or disaster but heart attack, with stress, excess weight and lack of physical fitness as major contributing factors. (Firefighters also face a far higher than average risk of cancer and suicide.)

Our fire bean video is the first in a planned series of five. Will our next one be as successful in driving online views? We think so — and not just because it also draws on the insights from our laddering research and uses behavioral determinants like norms and self-standards.

It also features a cat.