Health professionals should borrow marketing ideas from big companies to improve peoples’ health – say Cancer Research UK scientists in today’s (Friday 19 May 2006) British Medical Journal*.

Marketing has always been a force to be reckoned with in public health. In the hands of the tobacco, alcohol and food industries it has a well documented effect on people’s smoking, drinking and dietary behaviour.

But mimicking ‘big business’ tactics – putting the needs of consumers and stakeholders, rather than the product, at the heart of business – has also been shown to be effective in promoting healthy behaviour.

Lead researcher, Cancer Research UK’s Professor Gerard Hastings, of the Institute of Social Marketing at the University of Stirling, said: “Modern marketers produce what they can sell. Listening to the consumer and taking care to understand their point of view makes it easier to influence his or her behaviour. This deceptively simple tactic has revolutionised commerce over the last fifty years.

“Borrowing this ‘consumer orientated’ thinking and finding out why people make the unhealthy choices they currently do – their values and motivations – can help develop tailored initiatives that are more effective at promoting healthy behaviour.”

Known as ‘social marketing’, the concept has been shown to be effective in initiatives for early cancer detection, improving diet and tackling alcohol, tobacco and drug use.

Key to the success of projects using social marketing, is the early and ongoing involvement of health professionals, say the researchers. For example, the West of Scotland cancer awareness project, which successfully targeted low income groups to encourage people with symptoms of mouth or bowel cancer to get checked out by a doctor, would not have been as effective without the contribution of healthcare professionals at all stages from planning to implementation.

The team also suggest that social marketing should aim to take a lead from commercial marketing in developing long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with its consumers. For example, stop smoking services could give successful quitters supermarket-style loyalty cards to persuade friends and family to use the service too, and to be encouraged to think about their other health behaviours.

Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US have already embedded social marketing facilities within their health services, and the Department of Health and National Consumer Council are about to develop the first National Social Marketing Strategy for Health in England.

Prof Hastings added: “Most people know, for instance, that smoking is dangerous, or that their diet could be improved. They don’t change their behaviour because they perceive some other benefit in it – relaxation perhaps, or a treat.

“The secret for the social marketer is to devise a way of enabling them to get the same benefit more healthily.”

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “Finding ways to make initiatives that encourage healthy behaviour more relevant to people is incredibly important because we know that half of all cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle.

“The success of projects that have used social marketing suggests that, if the concept was adopted across the board, thousands of lives could be saved.”


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*What social marketing can do for you. Hastings, G and McDermott, L. British Medical Journal Vol 332.

About Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign Half of all cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle. Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign highlights five important ways you can lower your cancer risk:

  • Stop smoking
  • Stay in shape
  • Eat and drink healthily
  • Be SunSmart
  • Look after number one

About Cancer Research UK

  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK’s vision is to beat cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
  • Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
  • Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.

For further information about Cancer Research UK’s work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit our Welcome Page.


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