top of page

Applying commercial marketing principles to public health issues is not new news

by Rachel Allan

Applying commercial marketing principles to public health issues is not new – indeed we used to call it social marketing but public health communications approaches go in and out of fashion.

It seems over the last few years the explicit use of commercial marketing techniques has become less popular within public health marketing. I firmly believe that it is critical that we apply commercial marketing to public health challenges if we are serious about moving the dial on systemic issues including health inequalities.

“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product and services fits him and sells itself.” – Peter Drucker

Knowing your audience:

Great marketing is built around a forensic understanding of the customer or person you want to influence. Commercial marketing excels because it revels in audience insight ensuring messaging is seamlessly representative of the product or service, explaining the consumer need throughout the buying lifecycle.

Public health marketing deals with complex issues e.g. understanding the varied motivations for young people to quit smoking, the underlying drivers for people who do not take up cancer screening or why people may or may not practice safe sex.

Relentless research is important in getting under the skin of these attitudes as well as providing an opportunity to challenge cliches which can develop around behaviour change issues and prevent progress.

Refinement and improvement:

Commercial marketing is built on data which supports customer insight across the marketing funnel, as well as tracking the performance of activity so it can be constantly refined and improved.

Making sure that budget is allocated to tracking public health campaign activity is often overlooked or seen as a nice to have. This means important insights can be missed, making it harder to explain what worked and what didn’t. An overreliance on direct response data is unhelpful – it’s important to be confident to use other data points and insights to understand the real impact of activity.

Behavioural economics:

Commercial marketing tests and tests and tests again to see what drives consumer behaviour and how ‘nudges’ can be used to increase engagement or purchases. Testing is often seen as a luxury in public health marketing but using testing as a critical friend is the key to getting messaging and campaigns right.

Building awareness and partnerships:

Commercial marketing excels at creating awareness. Developing novel and innovative ways to engage customers and build a relationship means that tactical marketing activity including partnerships can bring to life the unique value of products and services.

Fundamental to all of this is brand building, which public health marketing has historically struggled with (partly because of the final point I am going to make below), but a strong, well-positioned brand is able to build relationships and communicate complex information through simple visibility. A good public health example of this is the smokefree brand.

Long-term view:

A big challenge for public health marketing can be the lack of long-term budgets. The consistency of spend by commercial organisations means that they can plan in advance and allow their activity to build on learnings year by year, free of political or policy changes. They are able to make a claim to the commercial impact of their work which helps secure budget. This can be a challenge for public health marketers although there are excellent examples where communications have been evidenced globally as a critical success factor for public health.

Tobacco control and smoking cessation took lessons directly from tobacco companies' marketing efforts themselves to drive behaviour change and quitting. By carefully recording results and sharing these internationally over 50 years, they have accumulated a huge amount of evidence about what worked in terms of messaging, audiences and issues.


bottom of page