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Foster professor brings marketing best practices to public health

Public health has a marketing problem. Or, as Mark Forehand sees it, public health has a marketing opportunity.

Forehand, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, says that public health messages have traditionally been broadcast rather than targeted. This is an approach born of necessity and ambition—the attempt to reach the largest possible audience with scant resources—but it requires a certain degree of rationality to work.

“Classic public health takes a strategy of pure push-out-the-information, trusting that people will act accordingly once they understand what is good for their health,” Forehand says. “Unfortunately, we are not rational creatures.”

Perhaps no one is better equipped to work with this reality than marketers. And for the past four years, Forehand has brought the best practices of his profession to the UW Health Marketing Research Center (HMRC). The center—one of three nationwide—was created in 2006 with a $3.6 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s a multi-disciplinary research group, comprised of public health specialists, clinicians, an economist, a psychologist, a biostatistician and Forehand.

“We thought we’d be more credible applying for the grant if we had a card-carrying marketer on the team,” says Dr. Jeffrey Harris, principal investigator of the HMRC who recruited Forehand to the center.

Marketing marketing

Even in a center with marketing in its title, Forehand initially had to convert some career health professionals who associated the term with big business seducing people to consume in the extreme, resulting in many of the intractable health problems that face an overweight, under-fit population.

“Many in public health consider marketing a pejorative: the evil we have to overcome,” says Forehand. “So I first had to convince people that marketing is a tool box. And, sure, it can be used for purposes that have a disutility for society, but it can also be used for purposes that have utility for society.”

It’s not difficult to see why this attitude might persist. Forehand estimates that the entire public health budget for combating obesity, diabetes and heart disease combined would amount to maybe one half of one percent of the advertising budgets of Pepsi and Coke.

Bang for the buck

Harris, Forehand and other researchers are trying get a bigger bang for the buck. Through the center they have collaborated on several pilot projects in a more targeted form of public health campaign. Among them:

  • A partnership with the American Cancer Society to develop smart strategies to promote healthy behavior and the prevention of chronic disease in the workplace.
  • An effort to combat high blood pressure among low-income and immigrant populations by using emergency medical technicians to distribute health information in the field.
  • A study on senior health learned that fear of falling plays an enormous role in whether or not older adults attend exercise classes, and helped create messaging to assuage anxiety.
  • An ongoing field study, in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the fast food chain Taco Time, is adapting state-of-the-science knowledge in consumer psychology to fashion menus and messages that will result in healthier eating for children.

Healthy connection

The CDC has pulled the plug on funding for its trio of health marketing pilots, so the UW center will officially close later this year. But Forehand and Harris say that the collaborations have taken root and will continue in ongoing and future studies. Forehand and Dan Turner, associate dean for masters programs at the Foster School, also will continue to teach marketing to students in the School of Public Health’s masters program in health administration. “The real long-term value of the center is that we made all of these interconnections across campus,” Forehand says.

That and the seed of a growing détente between marketing and public health.

“There does tend to be an anti-business sentiment in public health,” admits Harris, who earned his Executive MBA at the Foster School in 2003, after seeing the influence of business on health care over a 20-year career with the CDC. “And we in public health often bring solutions that don’t begin with the audience and their behaviors, wants and needs. The biggest insight that Mark has given us is that understanding your audience is key. That’s an incredibly valuable perspective for our research projects and our health administration students—convincing them that marketing is, indeed, a tool kit, an approach to figuring out what people need and how to get it to them.

“Marketing doesn’t make you pro-business. It just makes you pro-getting-things-done.”