Social marketers have recently been at the forefront of developing interventions and programs to tackle the challenges posed by the global pandemic, which have been compounded by the other complex social, environmental, health and economic issues we face.
However, the divide between “for better societies” marketing and “for greater profits” marketing is not as wide as we previously imagined. Companies are converging into the social marketing space as they develop more purpose-driven campaigns and integrate sustainability initiatives into their operations. Development practitioners are recognizing the value the private sector can bring in terms of resources and expertise.
You may be asking “What is social marketing?” Social marketing is the use of marketing and communication principles and techniques to improve the health, safety and wellbeing of people, society and the environment. Typically, social marketing is also linked to social behavior change and human centered design (HCD) for advancing social and environmental benefits.
In my role with Project Last Mile (PLM), I’ve spent the past two years advising Ministries of Health in Kenya and South Africa on demand creation strategies for COVID-19 vaccines. That experience, coupled with my years in corporate communications, has given me a unique perspective on the power of marketing for good. In April, I was invited to speak at the first African Social Marketing conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, and I was pleased to share my observations and learnings with the conference attendees.
Here are five key messages from the panel “Talking to People, Not at Them,” which focused on rethinking how we design campaigns, not just by integrating HCD principles, but by adopting private sector principles around advertising and marketing and applying them to social impact causes.
1. Sell in benefits and inspire, don’t tell or instruct.
Traditional health and behavior change communication assumptions don’t often consider the many physical barriers and cognitive biases that get in the way of changing people’s behavior. The assumption is that if people receive information, they will act on it.
In comparison, the private sector approach focuses on selling to clients why they would want to change their behavior, as it relates to their reality. Leading consumer brands sell benefits and inspire, they don’t tell or instruct consumers what the desired outcome is. The resultant communication is expressed as an internalized motivation rather than an externalized outcome.
Nike, for example, doesn’t tell consumers to just buy their running shoes. It sells inspiration and innovation through its tagline “Just Do It.” Mastercard doesn’t tell people to use their credit card. It sells priceless experiences. Coca-Cola doesn’t tell people to buy their drink —it sells in moments of optimism and refreshment.
2. Leverage consumer insights and data to create interventions along the user journey.
To sell in benefits, we need to understand what motivates our audiences and makes them tick. Identifying and getting very nuanced on a target audience helps to refine the research and insights that are needed.
Additionally, identifying their full user journey as it relates to your program objectives (health uptake, sanitation and hygiene, etc.), also relies on insights and data. This understanding of the full user journey is important as engagement with consumers or patients isn’t static or in specific locations. Knowing what the various touchpoints are and could be, and understanding what challenges or frustrates people about accessing services or enabling the behavior change, is key to creating effective and holistic interventions.
3. Co-creation is important in communication and social marketing, but an overreliance can create a flawed campaign.
The theory of co-creation states that if the community is involved in creating and developing the messaging and campaign, it will be more successful as it’s been created by the community, for the community. However, relying solely on the community or key stakeholders to develop messages and program tactics can create a flawed program, especially if it’s to be implemented regionally or nationally.
Community members are not communication or marketing experts. A young man living with HIV will be able to share his experiences and explain what may motivate him to get tested and stay on treatment, but this may be different from the older man living with HIV further down the road. There is still a need for a mediator or facilitator to understand the common denominators among the target audience, and to find key messages and intervention points that work for all, or at least most of your audience.
Additionally, patients or communities don’t always know what they need or what could benefit them, especially when knowledge or literacy may be low.
4. Incremental and agile changes are more effective than disruptive innovation.
An important element in private sector marketing is continual refinement of either the product or the service, to ensure it meets the needs of its consumers. Think of the evolution of the mobile phone. It developed from continual adaptation and upgrading of what used to look like big walkie-talkies. These in turn evolved from the landline, and before that the cradle phone. This evolution was only possible through repeatedly incorporating consumer feedback and insights.
The most successful brands understand that innovation doesn’t have to be disruptive. Big change is rare; what’s more common is often a series of small, incremental and agile changes that accumulate quickly. To do this, listening, understanding and talking with your audiences — not at them — is critical to understanding these small changes and improvements that are needed.
5. Matching the message with the messenger is critical.
It is common knowledge that engaging the right messenger can increase trust, relevance and resonance of the message. There is a reason why Nelson Mandela’s quote is so widely used — “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Using the local language or the vernacular is integral to understanding and connecting to your audiences. Working with local agencies familiar with the context/communities you’re working in helps to ensure messages do resonate.
In a program my colleagues ran in Eswatini, PLM spent a lot of time testing which messengers would be most effective to deliver different messages. PLM identified a range of community ambassadors and engaged in rounds of A/B tests on social media, to understand which messengers appealed to which audiences and designed campaigns to target populations with the messengers most likely to persuade them.
However, it takes time to identify messengers that are trusted in the community and to engage them to talk about the issues you wish to communicate. It also takes concerted effort to build and maintain relationships with these messengers so there is a degree of sustainability to the program.
Bridging the Gap
There is a lot that we can learn from imparting best practices and approaches between both the public and private sector. Though it is not just about integrating the exact same approaches without taking into consideration the context or operating environment. It’s about translating best practices and applying these to what is feasible in your sphere of work.
Patients, target audiences, employees — whatever we wish to label them, are ultimately all humans. They are exposed to multiple messages in a day. It’s the same person that receives the Nike ad and beer ad, as well as the HIV testing message.
My hope is that by sharing best practices between social and corporate marketers, and learning from each other, we break down the silos and see each other as humans. Ultimately, our work in marketing is meant to serve people. We can never forget the universal value of empathy in the work that we do.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Project Last Mile or its partners.
Camilla Osborne, MSc, SCMP
Camilla Osborne (MSc and SCMP) is a communications, brand and reputation management specialist with over 15 years of experience working in Africa and Europe. With a master’s degree in environment and development from the London School of Economics, Osborne has the unique ability to apply communication and marketing skills to critical developmental, public health and environmental issues.
Osborne has been supporting Project Last Mile (PLM) since July 2021 as PLM’s risk communications and community engagement (RCCE) technical advisor. She has been working closely with the departments of health in South Africa and Kenya to create strategies and execute plans to accelerate demand for COVID-19 vaccines.
Prior to joining PLM, Osborne was the head of communications for The Coca-Cola Company’s Southern and East African business unit, based in Johannesburg.