I recently wrapped up a two week vacation with a college buddy of mine in East Africa. For work, I get to travel to Kenya pretty often (we have an office in Nairobi) but had never been to the Maasai Mara, Lamu, or Naivasha. Jaunts to those places as well as a brief detour to the gorillas in Rwanda were amazing, a break much needed.
In any case, at the beginning of the trip I stopped with my buddy at Nakumatt (Kenya’s biggest supermarket) to pick up a container of sunscreen for the sunnier places we’d be traveling. We found a Johnson and Johnson’s bottle of SPF30 amidst a pretty weak selection though it had captions in Russian and a weird orange sticker that said “Endorsed by the Dermatological Society of Nepal”. We wore the sunscreen on hikes in Naivasha and got burned to a crisp. Whatever was in the bottle wasn’t sunscreen and we later bought an SPF70 version from a reputable pharmacy that worked like a charm. Of note: a Google search suggests the Dermatological Society of Nepal doesn’t exist.
Along the way to Naivasha, my friend pointed out how strange it was to see the stores in most of the towns we passed painted with Safaricom, Zain, or Tusker colors and logos. Lots of stores let these companies paint their stores for free to give them some color and they get a free painted sign for their own business as part of the paint job. Ask Kenyans what their thoughts are on Safaricom, Zain, or Tusker and they will have an opinion; the brands are incredibly well publicized and known and most people hold them in pretty high regard. A microfinance institution, Faulu, seems to have begun to take to this method in Kenya and had a few stores painted out on the road from Mombasa to Nairobi.
Why relay these stories? The poor, in most developing countries, have a ton of information thrown at them and products available on the market that are not checked by regulators. In the context of this, and limited time and money to explore all alternatives, there is a mass default to branded options. A smart Kenyan wouldn’t have been suckered on the J&J sunscreen with the weird bottle, they would have known what brands and bottles to look for. But where strong brands don’t exist, the cheapest option wins; see counterfeit antimalarial pills sales in most “pharmacies” in Kenya.
|Regrettably, no one paid us to post this picture.|
Branding is also important because it builds a trust relationship between the consumer and the provider. When Safaricom, Kenya’s biggest mobile telecom agency, introduced mobile money there was incredible uptake. Interestingly, and with full knowledge that the Government of Kenya wasn’t regulating mobile money or guaranteeing deposits via it, people placed large amounts of their savings with a company they only knew through experience using their mobile phone service service (reliable mobile coverage, prepaid phone balances that had integrity and could be checked instantly, etc.).
But, in global health marketing, there are huge billboards for public health products or messages that have 20+ logos for donor agencies at the bottom (all changing from billboard to billboard). Who of these 20 organizations do I trust? Why should I listen to the Swedish Aid Agency?
Worse, the ads frequently tell people to buy “a malaria net” as opposed to X branded malaria net. Marketing a specific, branded product is important as it allows people to form an opinion on the brand, and its associated company, over time based on their experience. Does the product work? Did it achieve the aim over time? Do my friends use it too? Can I trust purchases and messages from this company in the future?
In public health, it seems we’re failing with marketing on two accounts:
– No one organization/coalition is really responsible for coordinating and publishing ads for health campaigns. We can start by getting donors to stop requiring their logos on everything they fund. Let’s call this campaign the “Stop Donor-Related Territorial Pissing Urge”
– We’re marketing the abstract and failing to build a brand that people trust and emotionally connect with over time. A solution starts with vouching for products that work and that people experience work over time. While perhaps a bit extreme, what about giving marketing money away to companies that make good public health products with some rules on things they need to include in messaging (“buy X malaria net for all of your children under 5”, “buy Y condom and stay faithful to the one you love”)?
Of course, there are those doing this right like the Healthstore Foundation/CFW Shops and Marie Stopes International. Where are the rest?