A very powerful and innovative example of how companies can leverage their unique assets to solve pressing social issues was highlighted this week in The New York Times when an anthropologist living in Africa contacted some of the world’s leading corporations and asked them to help save lives. But this wasn’t a traditional request- Dr. Val Curtis was not seeking financial support or product donations. Instead, she wanted to learn how to manipulate people’s behavior.
Hand washing with soap is a seemingly easy solution for reducing deaths from a host of diseases and disorders; however, it simply wasn’t a routine practice in Ghana, where Dr. Curtis focused her efforts. Previous public health campaigns discussing germs and disease had failed to change daily habits. So Dr. Curtis set out to learn from the best in the business, those companies that had perfected how to embed new habits into their consumers’ daily lives. Her theory was that if a corporation can convince consumers to spray fabric freshener on clean fabric or engage in a variety of other “manufactured” habits that allow for the expansion of product lines (disinfecting wipes, whitening gums, health snacks and the like), they can determine the environmental cues that will drive individuals to routinely wash their hands.
Through an initiative called the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, Dr. Curtis worked with Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever to identify the advertising messages that would resonate with Ghanaians, and ultimately, change behavior. Results to-date show a 13 percent increase in hand washing with soap after using the restroom and a 41 percent increase prior to eating. And today, other public health campaigns, anti-smoking and drug abuse for example, are beginning to incorporate these habit-modification techniques.
This is a strong example of the power of collaboration among sectors and the role companies can play today in social marketing. Through an innovative use of corporations’ unique marketing knowledge, this public health initiative has addressed the root of the issue, begun to change behavior, and ultimately, to save lives.