Research & Insights

Why Commercial Marketers Make Bad Behavior Change Marketers

Have you ever seen a commercial, billboard or online campaign that made you scream, “I wish we could do that!” You’re not alone. Health communicators and other behavior change practitioners often fantasize about creating campaigns like Apple or Nike. These marketers motivate consumers to buy billions of products and services.  It’s natural to experience this sort of “influence envy.”

For decades, this flawed thinking has led countless behavior change programs to knock on the doors of ad agencies for help. “Make colon cancer screenings as hip as Apple,” we tell them; or “Make breast feeding as luxurious as Chanel.” We’ve all been there, deep in the fantasy of using commercial marketing to cause positive social change. There’s only one problem. Commercial marketing and behavior change marketing are fundamentally different. And this difference has led countless of well-intentioned behavior change campaigns to fail.

In the commercial space, marketing is typically trying to convince a person to change their brand preference. For example, Pepsi isn’t trying to convince you to start drinking soda; it’s trying to convince soda drinkers to drink their soda. Don’t believe me? Ask Pepsi for their “organic juice drinker conversion to soda drinker strategy.” They don’t have one. Why? Because it would be a colossal waste of money for Pepsi to attempt such a significant change in behavior. Instead, they go after people who already drink soda. So, Pepsi, along with thousands of other commercial marketers, are not trying to change behaviors. They’re trying to change brand preferences.

In contrast, you are trying to change behavior. And trying to convince someone to stop smoking, start recycling or exercise more is as ludicrous as turning an organic juice drinker into soda drinker. Nonetheless, we work towards these changes in behavior everyday. And attempting to achieve such audacious outcomes requires different strategies than brand preference change.

The differences between behavior change and commercial marketing could fill a book. But, I want to explain one critical difference; the “core audience fallacy.” Commercial marketing campaigns are typically looking to expand their base of customers with other like-minded consumers. This requires that every campaign they create appeal to the core audience. Then, they expose like-minded people to this campaign in hopes that they too will choose their product over the competitor’s. In other words, the core audience is crucial in a commercial marketing campaign.

Conversely, behavior change efforts should usually avoid the “core audience.” To cause sizable behavior change, a campaign must give an entire group of people a reason to change their behavior that is unique to them.

For example, my company, Rescue Social Change Group, does a significant amount of work in tobacco control. Tobacco behavior change requires that we associate living tobacco-free with the lifestyles and identities of those who currently smoke. However, the fact that these individuals are smokers makes them different from people who hate smoking.

In this example, what the commercial world calls its “core audience” would be non-smokers. So a commercial marketing campaign would attempt to reach these committed non-smokers as part of their campaign. But, if non-smokers and smokers are fundamentally different, then targeting non-smokers ensures that a campaign will miss its mark. Thus, to be effective, an anti-tobacco campaign must ignore the “core audience” to target smokers directly; by embracing their unique values and lifestyles to motivate them to change.

At face value, this seems obvious. Yet, the number of public health campaigns that fail to recognize this are countless. Think about the number of healthy eating campaigns you’ve seen that feature skinny, affluent, White people. Or the number of binge drinking campaigns that show people who look like they’ve never drank more than a wine spritzer. Or the number of teen tobacco prevention campaigns that feature kids who look like the next student body president. And this just scratches the surface. Beyond what the people featured in a campaign look like, the value differences between “users” and “non-users” make many of these messages irrelevant to the target audience.

Why does this happen? Well, unfortunately, most marketers misunderstand the unique principles of behavior change. These commercial marketers are drawn to their core audiences like a gravitational pull. This is what they do everyday. And they will use their logical arguments, refined through years of selling widgets, to convince you their approach is right.

Unfortunately, they’re wrong.

To change behavior we must change one of the factors that are leading people to engage in the unwanted behavior.  More often than not, it’s a daunting task. But, it is doable as long as you target your research, resources and messages to the right audience.

In addition, you must be able to correct commercial marketers when they try to “preach to the choir.” Mind you, working with a commercial marketing agency is not the only go way to go. There are hundreds of behavior change marketing companies that think about changing behavior everyday (Disclaimer: I am the President of one of these companies).

But, if you do work with an ad agency, make sure that you exert your position as the behavior change expert. Do not let them fool you with the core audience fallacy. Focus on the values and lifestyles of those who need to change.

So, next time you experience influence envy, ask yourself, is this ad changing behavior? Or is it just making its core audience feel loved?

Jeffrey W. Jordan is President and Executive Creative Director of Rescue Social Change Group, a behavior change marketing company with over 120 staff across North America. Jeffrey founded Rescue in 2001 at the age of 17 and has been dedicated to positive behavior change ever since. 

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Posted: November 5, 2015
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