Learning from an Expert 

An interview with Jeff French, Social Marketing Leader

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Here at Sight and Life, we jumped on the opportunity to interview social marketing expert, Professor Jeff French, to learn more about the history and successes of social marketing, how it differs from other disciplines, and some of the trends in the field. Jeff shared his insight derived from over 20 years of experience in the field including a position as Director of Policy and Communication at the UK Health Development Agency and a senior civil servant in the UK Department of Health. Additionally, he has published over 100 academic papers and five books. Jeff is a fellow at Kings College University London and a visiting professor at Brighton University Business School and teaches classes on topics from public health to social marketing. Currently, Jeff is the CEO of Strategic Social Marketing Ltd. As a thought leader in the field of social marketing, we thoroughly enjoyed hearing his insight and knowledge on social marketing.

SAL: Sight and Life

JF: Jeff French

 SAL: Could you just give us a bit about your background and tell us why you are so passionate about social marketing?

JF: I am a biologist by background and I worked in public health for over 20 years in the UK. About 20 years ago, I completed my MBA as part of my professional development and I discovered a thing called marketing. I found something that I could use to address some of the complex behavioral programs and challenges that I was trying to deal with in my public health role. I thought I had detected a new subject called social marketing until I started to read and learned that people have been talking about it since the 1960s. So for the past 20 years, I have been interested in applying marketing principles to create more effective and efficient social programs in health, but also in many other sectors.

SAL: How do you define social marketing?

JF: For me, social marketing is the best form of implementation science that we have. Not only is it, so, very clear cutting principles based on evidence-based practice, but its core is about a deep and respectful relationship with the people that you’re seeking to help and serve. Moreover, I think that chimes very much with not only the critical ideology accepted by most of the world, but it is something that is proven to work. If you work with people and put effort into understanding them, you can create programs that they value and will respond to. And if you do not do that, chances are your social program is not going to work.

SAL: So, social marketing would be an umbrella that catches all the tools you would use, however, it seems in the world of nutrition, most only select one of those tools to use instead of using the whole scope?

JF: It certainly is about giving good quality information and education to people, but it is also about changing the social environment in which nutritional choices are made. For example, if you subsidize healthy foods, more of them are going to get selected. So, one of the big problems I think with social marketing and the way it is interpreted, and probably not used very effectively in some places, is that it is thought of as well-crafted messaging and advertising and promotions and social media. All of these things are very important and should be used, but we need often more than that.

So there is a kind of gap between people who think our responsibility is to inform and educate and another group of people, including myself, who think we need to educate and inform people while creating the social conditions under which healthy choices are possible. I think the vast majority of social marketers fall into that category.

SAL: Why do you think the public health community, including nutritionists, hone in on the belief that the expert knows best and we just need to educate them.

JF: There are three things. The first one is straightforward; it is just the dissemination of evidence-based practice. There is a general lag adapting to innovation in any technical field – that is well documented. There are ways to kind of speed it up, but there is a lot of inbuilt resistance in any field to the application of new understanding. That is the first thing.

The second thing is one of the real problems with the public health field is that those people that do know about implementing or influencing behavior, be it from social marketing or other fields, tend to be positioned in public health organizations in second or third order positions. An example, if you take a commercial sector organization, its director of marketing would be on the board. In addition, about one-third of CEOs in commercial companies come from marketing backgrounds. If you look at public health institutions, how many people or CEO’s come from a kind of implementation science or marketing background? None, or at least very few. That is about the worth that it places on different kind of skill sets. Those people that understand implementation science, social marketing, behavioral change, they are not positioned at levels of authority in organizations as they should be.

Moreover, the last kind of reason for that frustration, I feel it deeply also, is an ideological one. The ideology that some people believe it is about influencing individuals, and they have just a very narrow view about how you do that and what should be ethically ok. They prefer to inform and educate and leave to people to make their own choice, so it is an ethical position. You know, I have had conversations with colleagues in terms of immunization. My view is I want everybody to be immunized and the program goal should be about getting over 95% of people immunized. While some say, “No, no, it’s not about that. It’s about making sure that everybody is well-informed and makes a good decision.” Therefore, it depends on your perspective about what your responsibility is. In addition, there is some pushback amongst some governments and public health professionals being worried about the ethics of influencing behavior. Therefore, they do not want to go that far, they see their job as informing and educating.

SAL: Can you highlight one example of where you have found in your experience a successful nutrition campaign in social marketing?

JF: I think that one good program, well I’ll mention two, is the Change for Live in the UK and the EPO program which started in France and now kind of spread to a number of other countries. However, just focusing on Change for Live, which is an ongoing program. Why is it successful? One reason is that it is conceived from day one as a social marketing program and not an education or informational campaign. In fact, it was a direct response from advice that planned education and informational campaigns would not work and should be scratched, and we needed to have something different.

The second reason was it was based on a huge amount of insight research and segmentation development of the population. The UK came up with six different subsets of the population, and that lead to six different intervention strategies and intervention mixes for those different groups, based on a deep understanding of why they made healthy choices and food choices that they did and what could practically help them to change their behavior.

The next, or third element of why it was successful was that a clear set of measurable behavioral objectives was included in the program, again based on a deep understanding of what was possible with the populations. The objectives were set out very clearly and mechanisms for measuring progress towards them were included.

The fourth element contributing to the success of the campaign was that that program was set-up in a way that made it sustainable and could transition from one government administration to the next. It is now going through four different government cycles, election cycles, and survived and continues. And the reason for that is that it is based on a lot of research, evidence, and data analysis and evaluation continues, evaluation feedback, that proves to ministers who make decisions about these things, that this is a good investment and it’s working.

For me, it clearly connects elements that you want to build in any nutrition program. One more that I would add is, maybe as crucial, is that the program set out with the intention of creating a coalition of like-minded people from the public sector, but also from the NGO sector and the commercial sector, to work together on that program, pushing in the same direction in a coordinated way. I think that is a big reason for it being so successful.


SAL: Tell us about some of the trends that are happening in social marketing right now.

JF: Big trends, they are all towards the more strategic application of social marketing. Social marketing is a great kind of methodology for understanding problems, creating solutions that are kind of you know co-developed with partners and members of the target audience. However, it is also increasingly being applied to helping inform the kind of social policy selection process and strategy development process. So social marketing is going upstream if you like, it’s going to be making a contribution and has done for many years at the operational level by governments and agencies to inform what policies should be undertaken and how they should be developing them around.

The other two big things are one – it is breaking out of its homeland of health and environmental issues. There is a lot of research being done in those two fields, it’s now being increasingly being applied in many other fields like you know energy, conservation, animal conservation, endangered species, that kind of thing, crime, and transport.

The third one would be that social marketing is using systems thinking approaches to understanding problems and coming up with solutions. So that’s about working across sectors, working you know interdisciplinary ways again, through the strategic approach.

 SAL: What steps do you recommend for someone looking to learn more about social marketing?

JF: Join the online community, like at George Washington University for example. Become a member of your local social marketing or an international social marketing association. Take a social marketing course, there are many around the world now, short courses, and more extended like post-graduate courses you can attend. Buy some books and read all the free material that is available, there is a lot of academics in social marketing providing free material. Additionally, speak to some other social marketing people and attend conferences.  

Recommended Reading Materials

Social Marketing and Public Health.  Jeff French

Strategic Social Marketing. Jeff French & Ross Gordon

European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) Technical Guide to Social Marketing