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Lockdown and protecting against COVID-19: A mammoth social marketing challenge

By Prof Debbie Ellis, Prof of Marketing, School of Management, IT & Governance, UKZN

I write this opinion piece as a marketing academic, passionate about the field of social marketing. I am not a medical expert or economist and am grateful not to be our president steering us through these difficult times. My passion, social marketing, is about using marketing theories, principles and tools not to sell products, but to change behaviours for social good.

My research foci have been on behaviour changes like healthy eating or exercise to address the global problem of obesity, or on encouraging eco-friendly consumption to save the planet, or preventing drinking and driving. However, no other challenge facing the global population has necessitated such an immediate, simultaneous and widespread social marketing initiative. Governments around the world have used various voluntary and involuntary strategies to get citizens to lockdown in their homes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The behaviours being asked of South African citizens during the lockdown are to stay at home and only venture out when absolutely necessary. When we do, we need to wear the necessary precautionary equipment such as masks, and possibly gloves, and we need to practise regular and appropriate handwashing practices. We need to look for new ways to stay healthy, educated, stimulated and sane. Every single person in the country is required to make these behaviour changes in order for us to protect ourselves against the virus and to slow the spread so that our health systems can cope.

From a social marketing perspective, global organisations such as the World Health Organisation, along with governments across the globe have had a mammoth task of putting together social marketing strategies to achieve this behaviour change. "Social marketing seeks to develop and integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviors that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good." (French & Gordon, 2015, p. 5)

Marketing guru Philip Kotler says social marketing aims to stimulate the target audience, us as citizens of this country, to "accept a new behaviour, modify a current behaviour, or abandon an old behaviour". (Kotler, Roberto, & Lee, 2002, p. 5)

Not only must we adopt new behaviours such as regular handwashing and staying at home, but we must stop hugs and kisses in greeting, and modify our social distancing to one to two metres from each other. Thus, while governments need to devise the new behaviours and communicate these to us and provide the necessary tools to make this possible, eg, decreasing the cost of data so we can access education online, or make the masks and hand sanitsers available, each citizen has a role to play in meeting this behaviour change challenge.

Key to a successful social marketing strategy is the application of sound marketing principles and processes. Like all marketing strategies, a social marketing strategy requires a consumer orientation. This means it must be fundamentally focused on us as citizens, whose behaviour needs to change. In ideal situations, the social marketing strategist would spend time researching the target audience (s) to identify the competing behaviours (the behaviours we're trying to change), what motivates and inhibits the new behaviours, what factors such as cultural, technological, economic or demographic factors, might influence the achievement of the desired behaviours.

In the coronavirus pandemic context, there has, unfortunately, been limited time for such detailed research, but such factors must still be identified and taken into account. For example, a competing behaviour to staying at home in lockdown is to visit friends. The social marketer needs to understand what drives people to do this, eg, tensions from too many people in a small space at home, inability to communicate with others, the need for some exercise, etc. If we can understand the drivers of these 'wrong' behaviours, then we can start to put plans in place to address them.

Do we need social services like social worker helplines that people can call when they are feeling stressed, and/or do we need to provide cheaper data so people can use technology to stay in touch, and/or do we need to show people ways to exercise in limited spaces. I am acutely aware that these examples oversimplify far more complex lockdown challenges, but they serve to illustrate how important it is for the social marketer to understand the different target audiences (citizens facing different circumstances) and to develop tailored strategies to reduce barriers to the desired behaviours and to increase the barriers to the undesirable behaviours, such as providing information to people on how dangerous and contagious the virus is, or imposing fines on people being out without a valid reason.

Another core principle of social marketing is that there must be overall societal benefit. The benefits must outweigh the costs. Producing healthy food products that are packaged in single-use plastics, for example, may have a net negative effect on society in the long run. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, this principle presents a major challenge to the social marketers and we have seen growing discontent and even anger around the lockdown related to this principle. Again I reiterate, I do not envy the balancing act that government needs to perform. On the one hand, they need to prevent the spread of the virus and 'flatten the curve', and on the other they need to ensure that people don't starve due to lack of income. Unlike some governments, ours appears to be relying on scientific facts, consulting experts across numerous disciplines, and developing a well-researched and considered approach to the lockdown decisions. But this is not an easy task, and communicating enough of the rationale for people to have confidence and trust in government's decisions, while at the same time not overloading the population with information, nor causing fear and panic, is by no means an easy task.

There is much that we as academics and researchers in this area of marketing can research and learn from this global social marketing challenge. Is it better to use the stick (fines and jail terms) or the carrot (incentives to stay at home, eg, cheaper data, TV channels to educate and stimulate children) approach? How much information and in what format is needed to communicate the desired behaviours? Which restrictive measures assist with behaviour change and which just fuel other social problems, eg, was a ban on cigarettes a good thing? My students and I have already begun several research projects. We are all affected by this social marketing challenge and can thus contribute both to the debates on these issues as well as to the success of the social marketing strategies. I welcome engagement on these topics and hope that you will play your role in assisting the social marketers to achieve the greatest social benefit in the context of this global challenge.

ReferencesFrench, J., & Gordon, R. (2015). Strategic social marketing. Los Angeles, USA: Sage Publications.Kotler, P., Roberto, N., & Lee, N. (2002). Social marketing: Improving the quality of life. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications