Business for Impact is committed to unleashing the power of business to help people and the planet thrive. In this edition of our e-newsletter on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and COVID-19, we focus on how companies are employing social marketing principles to promote both public health and their brands.
As a distinct discipline, social marketing aims to promote behaviors that benefit society as well as the individual. One key difference between social marketing and commercial marketing is that social marketing aims to influence people to change their behaviors for a greater good, while traditional commercial marketing aims to influence people to purchase a product or service.
Both kinds of marketing involve identifying a target audience, understanding what or who influences them, and creating persuasive messages designed to influence that audience’s thoughts and actions. Whether the goal of a marketing campaign is to reduce drunk driving, increase family planning in developing countries, or convince consumers to buy a specific brand, the objective in each case is to influence behavior change.
For companies that sell health care products such as Tylenol, social marketing techniques to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are a natural fit.Tylenol’s“Stay Home” (new window) advertising gives new meaning to an important behavior the company aims to influence. The ad emphasizes why physical distancing keeps health care professionals safe, prompting viewers to consider how their behaviors benefit the greater good, not just themselves. The ad also celebrates nurses, who are widely respected more than ever today, which creates a positive “halo” for Tylenol.Other social marketing campaigns are designed to shift social norms and attitudes, which lead to behavior change.
The Dove Health Care Hero campaign’s new ad, “Courage is Beautiful (new window), (new window)” (new window) features close-ups of health care workers whose faces are marred from wearing protective masks and reveal other skin imperfections.The ad prompts the public to see these flaws as marks of bravery. Like Tylenol, Dove is linking its brand with pro-social norm change messages and uses images of trusted front line health workers to engender positive associations with the brand. Dove is owned by Unilever, a global purveyor of soap brands and a leader in handwashing campaigns. The new COVID-19 campaign is an extension of Dove’s “Real Beauty” platform, which launched in 2004 with popular ads featuring regular women of all shapes and sizes (instead of models); the platform also has received criticism for a 2017 ad widely perceived as racist. Learning from past mistakes, Dove’s new COVID-19 spot celebrates health care heroes from diverse racial backgrounds.
Not every company has a clear social marketing angle. Surprisingly, Steak-umm, the frozen processed cheesesteak meat company, is trending during COVID-19 with social marketing messages targeting another consumer behavior: using data and science and rejecting disinformation. Steak-umm’s “nine-part soliloquy on Twitter is admonishing misinformation and advising on the importance of media literacy and reliable sources of data,” as Adweek reports (new window).
These days, it can seem that every corporate brand is converging toward the same message. If you were among the millions who watched the Global Citizen concert to benefit the World Health Organization on April 18, then you saw a battery of social marketing-oriented ads. For example, Verizon’s ad shows the variety of ways children are e-learning during COVID-19 and concludes with a message to “stay home, stay connected (new window).”
Watch enough of these, and a formula starts to appear. One compilation shows all kinds of companies employing the same basic elements in their ads: Dramatic music plays in the background,positive social marketing messages voice over, and emotional images of frontline workers appear culminating in a crescendo of hope, gratitude, and togetherness (apart). (“Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same” (new window))
The risk of so much feel-good advertising, even with well-intentioned social marketing memes, is customer disengagement. Consumers turn cynical when the same formula repeats over and over. And certain brands must be careful, especially if they are not in health-related industries. It’s one thing for companies that sell anti-fever medicine or soap to promote public health messages like physical distancing and hand washing. For others, it’s a bridge too far. Take the new Lexus COVID-19 ad that assures the public, “…we will do what we’ve always done: Take care of people.” This departs from the luxury carmarker’s established brand positioning around “curiosity” and “the pursuit of perfection.”
This is why Steak-umm’s social media messaging has been so refreshing during COVID-19. The kitschy purveyor of processed meat is neither marketing feel-good platitudes nor trying to pose as a health food company. Instead it’s promoting pro-social behaviors like using real data, not anecdotes or disinformation, to keep consumers safe. And, let’s be honest, they want to sell more Steak-umms.
The good news is that the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for companies and brands to authentically engage with consumers on a deeper level to boost corporate credibility, brand equity, and the bottom line. To do this, marketers should employ the pro-social tenets of social marketing in future campaigns and avoid formulaic, superficial attempts to tug at their audience’s emotions.
The International Social Marketing Association (iSMA) is hosting a series of webinars to discuss how social marketing practitioners can use science-based strategies and behavioral interventions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Business for Impact Project Director Gael O’Sullivan, a global expert in social marketing and behavior change, will serve as a panelist. Register and learn more here (new window).We invite you to tell us what companies are doing, including what’s working, what’s not, and what business can do better. Please share your stories by emailing us: firstname.lastname@example.org (new window).