What I Learned at World Social Marketing Conference

This past week, Jill and I attended World Social Marketing Conference 2017. I was just as excited to present ChangeMakers’ work on SAFE Work Manitoba as I was to learn from the global social marketing community. I wasn’t disappointed on either front. Here are just a few things I learned at #WSMC17 and that I’ll be thinking about as I work with the rest of the ChangeMakers team to create sustainable behaviour change for our clients.

Understand your audience

Nancy Lee encouraged us to approach our audiences without judgement and with empathy if we truly want to change their behaviour. We need to listen to what they have to tell us about the barriers that keep them from changing their behaviour, the benefits they get from their current behaviour, and the motivators that will help them adopt the behaviours we are promoting. We need to keep an open mind about the behaviour change we’ll promote to achieve our overall goal.

To illustrate, Nancy told us about being hired to help address a particular group of holdouts who were still littering on highways. The target audience in this case was truckers who, instead of stopping at a rest area to relieve themselves, keep a “pee jug” in the cab and throw it out the window when it’s full. In focus groups with the truckers, Nancy learned that it would be very difficult to convince them to use rest areas – pulling off the highway, stopping and rejoining traffic simply ate up too much time. But, she and her client could reduce littering by placing large garbage cans at weigh stations – where truckers are required to stop. The garbage cans are within throwing distance of the road, of course. And they went one step further – providing clean, empty jugs at the weigh stations to replace the full ones truckers had just discarded.

As communicators, we know we need to listen to our audience – but sometimes it helps to be reminded that doing so can take us far beyond our comfort zones.

Jeff Jordan

Jeff Jordan of Rescue Agency.

Behaviour change brands can also be lifestyle brands

Jeff Jordan of Rescue challenged social marketers not to try to be like Pepsi – but rather to be like Pepsico. In other words, to build multiple brands for different segments of our audience, based on their lifestyles and values. In his words, “public health builds brands for topics, not people.” Practicing what they preach, Rescue has researched “peer crowds” within American youth, including their values and risk for tobacco use, and developed different “lifestyle” brands to promote being tobacco-free to these audiences.

Fresh Empire is targeted to the “hip-hop” peer crowd.

Syke is targeted to the “alternative” peer crowd.

Down & Dirty is targeted to the “country” peer crowd.

And This Free Life is targeted to LGBT youth.

Each of these brands aligns being tobacco-free with the values of the teens who identify with the lifestyle. For Fresh Empire, it’s surviving and overcoming adversity. For Syke, it’s fighting against injustice and corporate manipulation. For Down and Dirty, it’s about individuality and creative self-sufficiency (or, to put it another way, “redneck hacks”). For This Free Life, it’s about protecting the progress LGBT people have made in living healthy, free lives.

To me, the real power of these lifestyle brands comes from the potential for pooling resources and co-operatively promoting a range of healthy behaviours as part of a subculture’s lifestyle. Rescue and their client, the US Food and Drug Administration, are already using these brands in a number of states to market tobacco-free lifestyles. Imagine the potential for using an already-established lifestyle brand to market other behaviours – responsible drinking, safer sex, environmentalism, voter engagement… The possibilities are limitless.

Elizabeth Fox

Elizabeth Fox of USAID

Let’s think big – from behaviour change to social change

Elizabeth Fox of USAID asked how social marketing could start to tackle some of the UN’s sustainable development goals – systemic issues like poverty, hunger, gender equality and justice. It’s a good question and may be the greatest untapped potential of social marketing.

Social marketing has been very successful in changing the behaviours of individuals – reducing smoking rates is a great example. On issues like tobacco, the combined effects of social marketing and policy change have produced profound cultural shifts – you just have to watch an episode of Mad Men to see how far we’ve come.

But issues like poverty or gender equality are complex and systemic. In the face of these problems, it can seem like social marketing is “trying to sell toothpaste to people who don’t have water” – a phrase Elizabeth borrowed from a “crusty old Cuban” she met early in her international development career.

Jeff French

Professor Jeff French

In response to this challenge, Jeff French reminded us that social marketing is more than a powerful way to design effective programs – social marketing and social marketers also have the means and potential to shape policy. He advised us that it is our professional responsibility to influence the organizations in which we work to ensure that institutional policies are supporting the programs we’re developing – and building a better world along the way.

I’ve been excited about the possibility of social marketing to make the world a better place since I first learned what it was – thinking about how we can achieve even bigger and better goals with social marketing only makes my passion burn brighter.

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