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3 Ways To Help Public Health Activists Think Like Marketers

Hank Cardello

Despite decades of noble efforts by public health advocates, good health, good medical care and good nutrition remain too far out of reach for many Americans. Over a third of us have obesity. Access to affordable health care remains daunting. And opioid addiction runs rampant. These problems are complex, requiring strategies on many fronts before they begin receding.

But one thing is clear: Public health advocates can’t solve these problems alone. They need to get industry on their side – the organizations that make and sell the food and beverages, that provide and pay for medical care and medical products, and many others entities that are being blamed for worsening the public’s health.

And even if they could solve these problems on their own by getting legislators to enact laws, public health advocates couldn’t make Americans healthier by depending on the all-inclusive strategies they’ve tried for years. Those strategies include taxes and bans on high-calorie foods, and package labels that detail the adverse effect of the product inside (calories, alcohol levels, artificial ingredients, etc.).

To help people with the greatest need to live healthier lifestyles, health advocates must change their approaches in two primary ways. First, they must think less like crusaders and more like advisers to industries whose offerings they have held in contempt for worsening the public health. And second, they must think more like marketers and get industry to create offerings that appeal to the mindsets and needs of the most unhealthy Americans. These products and services must both improve public health and companies’ bottom lines.

Taxes, bans, labeling restrictions and outrage – all longtime staples of the activists’ playbook – no longer stand a chance against cultural and economic forces that make it easier for much of the public to remain unhealthy. To really drive change, health activists must adopt the corporate mindset that they rue – specifically, a marketing mindset.

Smart marketers understand the value of partnerships based on shared interests. For example, in the 1980s Anheuser-Busch partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to encourage people to “know when to say when” and developed lower-alcohol light beers that dramatically boosted their sales. Smart marketers also understand that they need to deliver different messages and products to meet the varying demands across groups of consumers, as Volvo did when it marketed its crumple-proof cars to drivers concerned about their families’ safety on the road rather than to hot-rodders who care about speed and handling. Shrewd business marketers know that a common message or one marketing campaign for all customer segments is rarely successful.

Yet too often, the public health community takes a “one-size-fits-all” approach to solving multifaceted problems. They assume that all consumers will automatically understand the logic behind adopting healthy lifestyles, whether it’s exercising more or making better choices when they shop.

A new Hudson Institute study illustrates the shortfalls of the one-size-fits-all approach. The study surveyed 2,000 consumers grouped by four weight classes: healthy weight, somewhat overweight, mostly overweight and those with obesity. Through conducting phone interviews and analyzing highly validated data from the Natural Marketing Institute, the research found:

  • Consumers with obesity look for taste and value, not health and nutrition, when they choose what to eat. So saying something is “healthy” is actually a turnoff for them.
  • A quarter of these consumers say they never exercise. Many said they are not convinced that exercise is good for their health. So touting the value of exercise will fall on deaf ears.
  • Individuals with obesity were less likely to read and act on package labels than healthy weight consumers. While labeling is still a good thing, especially with the growing number of consumers who value transparency, it is a big “meh” to the most overweight population segments.

Marketers love these studies because they gain insights into how they can tailor their communications – their messages about the benefits of their offerings to different constituencies. Public health advocates must take the same approach.

They must also understand what drives the decisions at the top of big companies, which can become powerful allies when properly motivated. They have the dollars, talent, distribution channels and public relations resources to help drive more rapid change. Why not learn how to harness this power to the benefit of public health?

All of this requires a major mindset shift for public health activists. Here are three ways they can begin to make that shift:

Speak the Language of Business

Marketers and corporations do not base their daily decisions around what’s healthy for consumers. Rather, they focus on goals like increasing revenue, market share and operating profits. Rather than wagging the finger, health advocates are far better off showing executives case studies of how making constructive change has led to better profit margins and solid revenue growth.

Big companies also employ millions of people and stimulate thousands of local economies around the world – and will resist if they feel like their existence is under threat. Activists who understand these priorities and constraints, and who can demonstrate the consumer appeal of selling products and services that promote public health (appeal that turns into more revenue and profit), will go a lot farther than those who just preach against the ills of unhealthy food and moral corruptness of those that sell it.

Start a Competitive Fire

Nothing motivates a CEO or chief marketing officer more than learning how their arch-competitors are out-competing them. Tools such as the JD Power ranking of automobile quality have been highly effective in improving the quality of autos and their safety, while also serving as a guide to help consumers choose more reliable vehicles.

Another measure of progress, the Access to Nutrition Index, ranks food companies on several factors such as their nutrition strategy, responsible marketing policies toward children and their product labeling practices. The more these kinds of comparative reports are used by the public health community, the more likely industry will respond.

Witness the proliferation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports spawned by consumer demands to understand company practices regarding the environment, selling of healthier foods and policies surrounding employee well-being. These have become the minimum ante for companies desiring to enhance their reputations. Companies have learned that “Doing the right thing” for public health is good for business.

Catch Companies Doing the Right Thing

Demonizing industry to protect the public good has been the go-to model for activists for decades. It’s a zero-sum game – where no one wins. The tobacco playbook is often adopted to fight companies and industries deemed to be contributing to unhealthy lifestyles, communities and environments by punishing the offenders for their transgressions. For example, taxing sodas – whether effective or not – has become a go-to strategy. As long as this mindset persists, those seeking solutions in the public interest are doomed to lengthy delays in achieving their goals.

Clearly some industries and corporations resist changing their harmful practices. We observe this with food companies and restaurant chains that continue selling overstuffed portions to overweight consumers. We also see it with pharmaceutical companies that turn a blind eye to the drug overdose crisis, especially addictive opioids, that are infecting communities across the country where deaths now exceed fatalities from gun violence and automobile accidents. For these companies, public health advocates have a strong case to aggressively pursue change.

Corporations have become jaded by activist attacks as many feel the assaults unfairly depict their companies and they take the attacks personally. They feel that no matter what companies do to improve situations, there is never any credit given for progress. Said differently, they always brace for the “but” that the company didn’t go far enough.

A better way for public health advocates to accelerate change (and to enhance their credibility) is to highlight when companies do the right thing rather than continually tarring and feathering the miscreants. Publicly trumpet Amazon for raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour (or better yet, issue a report ranking companies by their wages); cheer drug store chain CVS for eliminating the sale of tobacco products rather than adding the “but” that they still sell “junk foods;” and (gasp) applaud the soft drink companies for eradicating more calories and sugar from the food supply than any other company.

By heeding these principles, public health advocates striving to help families out of poverty, bring affordable health care and improve nutrition can shorten their time to accomplishing their missions. Learning how to more effectively engage with business will go a long way to help them achieve their ends.

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