It Makes Me Smile 

How can behavioral insights for unhealthy foods help create demand for healthy food?

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I had convinced my son that “fizzy” drinks were disgusting. I told him they were bad for him, that they are full of teeth rotting sugar and that they did not taste nice. He believed me and never wanted to try one. However, eventually, children reach an age where their friends become authorities on seemingly everything, and they start to listen more to their mates than their mum.

On the school run yesterday, my 8-year old son: “Oliver says, mixing red and blue makes green.”
Me: “No, I am sure that makes purple.”
My son: “No, Oliver knows Mummy.”*

Then later

Me: “Why are you digging a massive hole in our lawn?”
My son: “Freddy said we could find diamonds in our gardens.” 
Me: “Err no, darling, we don’t have diamond mining in the UK.” 
My son: “Yes, we do. Freddy told me so (as he carries on digging).”

When Oliver and Freddy told my son that he should try a “fizzy” drink as they were “fun”, he no longer listened to me and my warnings. He used his pocket money to buy a can of Cola-Cola. The result – he loved it! Why do you love it? I asked him.

“It makes me smile Mummy,” he replied simply.

For me, this uncomplicated response summed up everything – unless healthy and nutritious drinks such as milk and water make my eight-year-old “smile”, he will keep wanting Coca-Cola. And although I can use a metaphorical “stick” and ban him from drinking such drinks now, without the “carrot”, I will not win the battle in the long run. As soon as he is old enough to walk to school and go out by himself, he will just choose to buy unhealthy drinks with his pocket money.

Apart from my son’s questionable trust in his friend’s advice (and their questionable art and geological knowledge), what can we learn from his Coke experience? And how can we use such insights to create demand for nutritious food and drinks?

For me, the key is this

LISTEN. Listen to your target audience – the people whose behavior you want to change. Whatever people do, even if it seems foolish to you, they will have their reasons. These reasons might not be rational (as my son’s experience demonstrates), but then we are driven by emotion, and our decisions and actions are rarely logical.

Many of you might have focused on educational interventions in the past, believing that people simply need to know what is good for them and what is not. However, do not be fooled; education does not always work.

If we always made rational decisions, none of us would overeat, smoke, salute three times to magpie birds (which I do due to a silly old English superstition), or drive like lunatics. But rest assured, when you ask and listen, your target audience will have their reasons.

When I worked at the Department of Health England, they ran the 5-a-day campaign, trying to encourage people to eat more fruit and vegetables. However, during the campaign run, consumption went down. Why? They made the incorrect assumption that knowledge and changes in attitudes are sufficient, and ignored beliefs or benefits gained from eating unhealthy foods (do carrots and broccoli make my 8-year-old smile? You can guess the answer).

The whole social marketing discipline is based on the idea of exchange, and if you want people to change their behavior, you have to offer them something in return. Often this is non-monetary – a feeling of belonging, sophistication, or security. Or, an alternative product that gives them the same or greater benefits as the product they are currently using. These benefits must be immediate, as we value these more than longer-term ones.

You only can work out what the exchange should be by listening to your target audience and understanding the benefits they derive from the negative behavior, such as consuming high-sugar soft drinks. Coke gave my son immediate happiness; how can we create that same feeling with a healthy drink? 

For deeper insight on formative research, take a look at our Action in Brief on “Eat More, Eat Better”, a behavior change strategy to support improved food access and food choices for women in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. 

Further Learnings

This summer Sight and Life are running a three-day course as part of the Swiss Lugano Summer School. The session “Generating demand for better public health goods and services: A systems and consumer-centered approach” and will explore how social marketing, behavioral insights, and innovations in behavioral science can be used to create demand for healthy products and behaviors. The course will also explore how public-private partnerships can make healthy products more attractive to consumers and develop sustainable business models. Further details and where you can enroll click here

I hope to “see” some of you there.

*In case you are wondering, mixing yellow and blue make green.