You Are What You Tweet

Aug 13

‘Slice of life’ tweets have been some of the most scorned content on the Internet. Who really cares if you’re frying up grass-fed bacon by the pound or binge watching the latest season of House of Cards from your couch? Most of us consider this the custard-like filling of the Twittersphere—lots of calories, little substance.

However, by virtue of sheer volume, these very tweets may be useful for tracking and forecasting health-related behavior if the data can be extracted in an accurate and efficient manner. Increasingly, ‘big data’ innovators are harvesting the 200 billion tweets posted each year to help inform and influence public health efforts in a growing field known as computational health science.

Take the Lexicocalorimeter for example. Researchers at the University of Vermont developed this online, interactive tool to measure the caloric intake and output of Twitter posts by building an extensive list of foods and activities and assigning each a number of calories. The rough ratios of these measures are presented by state to establish a real-time ranking of caloric balance.

Generated by the Lexicocalorimeter, the maps below show which food and activity was most significant for each state at a given point in time. For example, “tomatoes” and “dancing” lead in California while “cake” and “eating” are most popular in Mississippi, the most obese state in the nation. Turns out the tool’s caloric balance data strongly correlates with health stats reported by the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System—the gold standard of behavioral surveillance.

Lexicocalorimeter image

There also have been a number of efforts to use social media to track and predict the magnitude and progress of the flu. During the 2012-2013 flu season, scientists from Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University developed a Twitter tracking system that was 93 percent accurate when compared to national flu data collected by CDC (“National and Local Influenza Surveillance through Twitter: An Analysis of the 2012-2013 Influenza Epidemic”).

Flu twitter graphic

To achieve this level of accuracy, researchers had to create an algorithm that would separate chatter from useful information. For example, one problem with mining Twitter to determine flu incidence is that people aren’t just using the platform to discuss their own exposure or symptoms, but also to discuss the flu in general (especially after relevant news coverage). There are also thousands of tweets that need to be weeded out even though they include relevant terms (e.g., “Bieber fever” or “the cost of gas makes me sick”).

While there are opportunities and challenges to consider, both of these examples indicate that Twitter has the power to track and predict public health issues.

Benefits and Challenges chart

Benefits and challenges associated with using Twitter to inform public health efforts.

We must consider how we can use this information as health communications professionals. For the most part, my day-to-day interaction with Twitter revolves around the content that clients can push out and less on how they can listen and learn from what others are posting. But clearly there is a lot to learn and act upon if we spend more time harnessing the power of Twitter.

To start, we should use this type of data to inform awareness, education, and behavior change efforts by better understanding when and why people are collectively talking about particular public health topics or activities. With insights gleaned from tools like the Lexicocalorimeter, we can design education and outreach efforts with tailored, state-specific health messages; with flu data, we can predict where and when illnesses will spread, providing public health systems with advanced warnings and more time to pull together necessary resources.

Twitter data can also be used to identify misperceptions around health issues, therefore, informing what audiences to target with communications efforts. The Hopkins analysis of flu-related tweets found that a significant number of people were taking antibiotics to treat flu symptoms; however, we know that antibiotics don’t treat the flu, which is a virus. This valuable insight should be used to help inform messaging for flu experts interacting with the media and future antibiotic misuse campaigns.

As communications professionals, we must be nimble, efficient, and constantly innovating to create and refine our outreach strategies. I look forward to following this growing trend as we continue to realize the power of Twitter’s collective voice—even all the content ‘junk food’ that inspires more than the occasional eye roll on my part. Maybe I’ll have more tolerance for it now!

Walking the Fine Line – Fear and Health Communications

Jun 05

Ronald Klain speaking at the Health Conference. (Photo Credit: 1776)

Ronald Klain speaking at the Health Conference. (Photo Credit: 1776)

I had the opportunity to recently attend the Health Conference at 1776’s Challenge Festival. The first part of my day was spent immersed in panel discussions that featured thought leaders whose end goal is to create a healthier world. The second part of my day was spent sitting on the edge of my seat while 20 health-focused start-ups from around the globe pitched their companies to the panel of judges.

Despite the excitement that pumped through me during the Shark Tank-esque portion of the event, my mind would continuously drift back to the “fireside chat” given by Ronald Klain, aka the “Ebola Czar,” whose role is was to keep the bureaucratic gears turning to efficiently and effectively foster solutions to the already raging epidemic.

Throughout his talk, he often underscored the importance of communications in helping control the outbreak. He emphasized how effective communication–both internal and external–helped provide a rapid response, build medical infrastructure, coordinate across government agencies, and manage public fear.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of how communications acts as both a mediator and a (often, unintentional) propagator of fear.

Deborah Kotz effectively summarized this phenomenon in the context of the Ebola crisis in an article she authored for the Boston Globe, “An estimated 36,000 Americans are expected to die of the flu this year, but, if history is any indication, the majority of us will skip the recommended yearly vaccine. We’d likely, however, be lining up around the block to get an Ebola immunization if one was available — even though only one person has died of the infection in this country so far.”

In health communication, we often have to walk the fine line between sharing critical information without sparking irrational concerns. This high-wire act is even more important in the age of social media where misinformation can spread like wildfire. Our challenge of health communicators is to 1) be proactive without inadvertently adding fuel to the fire and 2) As Mr. Klain explained, acknowledge to the public that their fear is normal to an extent, while providing information to mitigate the fears to a realistic level. Communications as a mediator of fear, however, often comes after the fire is already burning bright.

Mr. Klain’s talk affirmed the importance of thinking strategically before conveying health and risk messages to the public. Know your audience, know how to reach them, and perhaps most importantly know how to shift your tone to avoid creating a culture a fear.

New career goal? Become an expert tight rope walker – one that can walk the line between effective behavior change communications without instilling irrational fear in those I am trying to reach (à la homemade hazmat suit).

Environment as a Behavior Shaping Tool

May 26

Our office is moving this summer. We’re not moving far, just a few floors away in our current building. But we are moving big, in that we are transitioning to an “open” floor plan – no offices, no partitions between workstations and (gasp) precious little filing space. My thoughts on the matter fluctuate from excited to terrified within every hour of every day.

To be sure, this change will require me to work very differently from the way I have grown accustomed to working. And, it has gotten me thinking a lot about the influence that our physical environment has on our behaviors.

Admittedly, this is not a new concept. Studies have shown that placing healthy food choices in more prominent, easier-to-access locations increases the consumption of those foods over less healthy alternatives. We have also seen that the explosion of bike shares and protected bike lanes in major cities has motivated more people to use their own power to get around (Washington, DC and New York have doubled biking rates in 4 years).

But, in these examples, personal choice is still there. If I really want a brownie instead of fresh fruit, I can get one with a little extra effort (and guilt). If I don’t want to ride my bike through the city streets, I can walk or take the Metro, or a taxi, or a bus, or my car.

In the case of our office move, however, I don’t have many choices. I can’t choose to keep an office when no offices exist. I can’t choose to keep my hard copy files when no storage space exists. I can’t chose to host meetings or conference calls at my table for convenience because it will disturb those around me. I can choose, however, to embrace this change as a fresh start, a new way to work, an exciting new adventure, and an opportunity to get to know my colleagues even better.

So, with limited choices, it seems that attitudes become even more important. As I consider how I will need to behave differently in our new office environment, my attitudes towards those new behaviors will likely influence them as much as our office set-up will. And, my attitudes will be influenced by social norms, outcome expectations and a whole host of other behavior-shaping influences.

For me, this reinforces the importance of taking a holistic look at every behavior change challenge – and the utility of considering how multiple influences play a role. Yes, our new office environment will cause me to behave differently. But for me to truly embrace those new behaviors and maintain them over time, I’ve also got to believe that those actions will have a tangible benefit (e.g., more collaboration, less paper clutter), that my colleagues will support me, and that I actually can work differently after all these years. Messages, communications initiatives and training workshops related to our move should take these factors into consideration, and, fortunately, most have done so thus far.

Somewhat ironically, planning ahead to working in a “one size desk fits all” office environment has renewed my belief that there is never a “one size fits all” approach to motivating behavior change.

Words of encouragement and open space work tips are most welcome!

Authenticity: An Imperative of Successful CSR

May 21

Authenticity is such a buzz word in PR. We use it all the time: our channels must be authentic — i.e. use earned media and integrated content, vs. paid placements – so our audiences are less skeptical of the content being communicated; we must use authentic voice when talking with our audiences, so they trust us and are more likely to pay attention; spokespeople must have an authentic connection to the issues/products/topics we are communicating about for them to be credible.

I would argue that in the case of authenticity, we use that word or principle frequently, because of how very important it is. And Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is one particular area of business where authenticity is especially critical to success.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development defines CSR as “the continuing commitment by business to contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the community and society at large”. Restated simply – or perhaps even oversimplified — CSR is about the ‘good’ a company does.

While CSR has evolved tremendously over the last 10 to 15 years – into a key discipline integrated into many companies’ business strategies and plans, it historically has often operated as a discrete marketing or HR function, in many cases instituted for the purposes of building — or in some cases ‘fixing’ — a company’s reputation.   Corporate reputation issue? Enter a CSR campaign to help distract from that issue or compensate for that issue.   Because of that reason, many are skeptical of companies’ CSR programs.   Are they truly intended to improve the quality of life of employees, their families, and community and society at large? Or are they reputation-band-aids, that are purely to help enhance the company’s reputation with some potential ‘good’ impact as a bi-product?

The scrutiny and skepticism that often surround a company’s CSR efforts are the very reason why authenticity of such programs is demanded and necessary for their success.   Recently, Jennifer Risi, Ogilvy’s Director of Media Influence spoke on a panel entitled “Earning Stories for Good – Big Rewards for Your CSR Program”, and published an op ed on a similar topic. She made the important point that earned media placements that tell a company’s CSR story are often more credible than paid, given the authenticity they bring, helping these stories resonate more with their intended audiences.     I would build on Jen’s point and go even further to suggest that the actual content of the CSR story must focus on the actual good being done, and not lead with or place too much focus on the company doing it. If there is a benefit to the company from the CSR story being told, all the better – but the focus of the story should be on the positive impact being made, with the company making that impact as a supporting point.

CSR that is instituted with the intent to truly have a positive impact is authentic. And authentic CSR is powerful.   It improves lives, strengthens communities, delivers good for society at large. And, ultimately, when CSR is authentic, and delivers the good it has promised, it brings the added benefit of driving company reputation, and even in many cases functioning as a business driver for the company. A win-win for all.

Can marketing campaigns impact our hidden biases?

May 18

Embarrassing story: I was chatting with an acquaintance at a holiday party a few years ago. I had heard him talk before about having a family and raising his son, so I asked if his wife was at the party too. His response: (a large chuckle, and…) My husband couldn’t make it tonight.  While I was mortified, he was good natured about the whole thing.  I had totally made an assumption about him based on my unconscious biases.  This is something we all do.  All the time.  Without realizing it (hence, the unconscious part).  (If you think you are immune, take a few of the Implicit Bias quizzes at or this quiz at Love Has No Labels.)

Unconscious bias, also called hidden bias or implicit bias, is a prejudice we have or an assumption that we make about another person based on common cultural stereotypes, rather than on a thoughtful judgment (  And we apply this unconscious bias across many categories and contexts, such as gender and race, in the workplace and socially. NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof says it well, “Of course, there are die-hard racists and misogynists out there, but the bigger problem seems to be well-meaning people who believe in equal rights yet make decisions that inadvertently transmit both racism and sexism.”

The impact of unconscious bias in hiring and management decisions in the workplace has become a popular topic in the last few years. For example, an analysis by showed that performance reviews differed significantly for men and women, with women receiving more negative personality criticism than men. As many as 20% of large U.S. companies, including companies like Google (and full disclosure, Ogilvy Public Relations), are providing unconscious bias training to their employees, and this percentage could reach 50% in the next five years (The Wall Street Journal, 2014).

One way to overcome unconscious bias is to increase personal awareness of it so we can consciously commit to correcting for it and changing it.  Communications campaigns have the potential to make a huge impact here – opening our eyes to the thoughts we don’t even realize we have.  One example that has really stuck with me since seeing it many months ago is the Always #LikeAGirl campaign.  When this video debuted online (and then aired during the Superbowl), it got people talking about the way we use “like a girl” as an insult without even realizing it.  I personally love this concept, and applaud Always for doing it.  As a mom of a 5-year-old boy, I am already starting to hear what boys do and what girls do, and can see how much this type of bias matters in shaping my son’s view of the world.

Similarly, Similac took on the Mommy Wars with this video a few months back.  Satirically pitting working moms against yoga moms against stay-at-home dads (etc.), this campaign asks parents to stop making assumptions and judging each other based on our life choices and realize that we are all “on the same side”.   Though I kind of wish the dads hadn’t been the first to get to the runaway stroller at the end, the sentiment here about the biases we bring to the table rings true.

From the federally-sponsored What Can You Do? campaign highlighting the talent of people with disabilities in the workforce (check out its Who I Am video) to Tiffany’s inclusion of a gay couple in its Will You? commercial (full disclosure again: this ad was developed by Ogilvy and Mather), communications that flag and challenge our unconscious biases are becoming more common.  Yet the potential to do more in this space seems limitless.

Where else have you seen memorable campaigns that attempt to target unconscious bias?  And where are there opportunities for companies or others to use communications to bring other biases (e.g., age-ism, obesity, veterans in the workforce) to the forefront?

Caution: Annual Check Ups May Be Bad for Your Health

May 08

Throughout my career, I’ve been helping my public health clients encourage their consumer audiences to get tested, get screened, get vaccinated, and to “talk to their health care provider about” a host of procedures and options. The underlying theme has generally been the more (evidence-based) care the better. A few years back, as part of my wine-soaked bookclub with my gal pals, I read Shannon Brownlee‘s Overtreated, which opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking—that more care is not necessarily better; in fact, it could make things worse.  And then the Cochrane Collaboration presented evidence that the good old annual check-up doesn’t make a difference when it comes to reducing morbidity or mortality — not to mention the high cost of the unnecessary care. Wait, WHAT?? How could that be? The estimated 44.4 million adults who receive an annual preventive health examination are not benefiting from it?  It turns out that US Preventative Service Task Force does not recommend annual checkups for asymptomatic adults and the Society of General Internal Medicine started making that same recommendation in 2013 as part of the Choosing Wisely campaign.

Experts believe that this bad news about annual check-ups is related to this phenomenon: the types of diseases/conditions commonly discovered in routine exams are either fairly benign or so far advanced that outcomes can’t be altered with treatment. Wow.

This news (at least news to me) has rocked my world. I can’t quite get my head around this finding that goes against common belief and practice (44.4 million!). If people stop getting annual check-ups, will they be less likely to build trusted relationships with their providers? Will there be less opportunities for those critical conversations about preventative behavior changes, e.g., better nutrition, increased physical activity, etc. And, as a communications professional, I can’t help but think how do we begin to message this to consumers?  I believe the answer is very cautiously. Depending on the messenger, the message might be misconstrued as limiting access to healthcare/socialized medicine/end of America as we know it…  I believe it can only come from that individual, trusted health care provider him or herself, who takes the time to explain that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Ripple Effect: Power of Thanks

Apr 23

I was reminded earlier this week that civility, while not completely dead, is on it’s last legs. Yes, civility. Not to be confused with chivalry, which is an entirely separate blog post. While waiting in line, in the pouring rain for the morning bus to arrive the woman in front of me decided twirling her umbrella in a Singing in the Rain-type fashion was an acceptable pastime activity. It was early and I was still waking up, so I decided to overlook this incident even if my stuff and I were a little wetter then we should have been. It was only when we boarded the bus and said woman decided to block the aisle and swing her oversized backpack and golf umbrella, hitting the woman across from her and just missing me that I determined she was inconsiderate. Not just because of her actions, but rather because she never noticed her actions affecting those around her. Nor did she apologize.

What if the shoe had been on the other foot? The age old adage “Treat other’s as you want to be treated” comes to mind. When you’re young parents and mentors tell you to mind your P’s and Q’s. If someone gives you candy, a gift, or a compliment you say thank you. You send a thank you note. It is something that becomes ingrained, or at least that was my impression.

Apparently not.

According to the most recent Civility in America 2013 study, conducted annually by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, 95% of Americans surveyed believe we have a civility problem in America. Not only that but the perception and reality of incivility are not that far apart. Experiencing incivility has become the “norm,” and the attitude about the state of American civility doesn’t appear to be getting better anytime soon. Since the first survey was administered in 2010, seven in 10 believe that civility is worse compared to a few years ago and will continue to worsen.

Civility in America by the numbers:

  • 17.1 – average number of times Americans encounter incivility in a 7-day week or 2.4 times per day
  • 8.5 – average number of times Americans encounter incivility in real life/online in a week

In a digital world and as someone whose career is heavily dependent on online capabilities the following finding, while not surprising, was unnerving to actually have confirmed by those surveyed.

Americans who expect civility to worsen over the next several years now cite the Internet/social media as one of the leading causes (59%) after politics, American youth and the media. About one-third blame Twitter (34%), at statistically higher levels than in 2012 (21%). As more people use Twitter or hear about uncivil tweets, Twitter is becoming easier to blame for worsening civility in America. The Internet may be a leading cause of incivility because of how frequently Americans are experiencing incivility online, which is reaching an average of nearly nine times a week. Six in ten Americans (59%) report incivility from what they read online in news articles and in comments associated with the articles. Two-thirds of Americans (67%) think that social media as a whole is uncivil. Facebook receives slightly higher civility ratings than the other social sites (34%) perhaps because users have control over what information they see and from whom.

That’s why the idea behind American Greeting’s ThankList is so refreshing. It seeks to take the constant stream of digital content and turn the negative into a positive, acting as a step toward making a world that’s nicer, even if it’s just a little bit. At a person can express gratitude towards those who shaped their life through written word or a thoughtful, personalized video. Just the simple act of saying, writing, or expressing two words makes a significant difference in a person’s outlook and behavior.

It’s been said before, but there is actual scientific proof that expressing any amount of gratitude has a profound effect on your attitude and behavior as well as those around you. In a recent publication, Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan, Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino cited that, “Receiving expressions of gratitude makes us feel a heightened sense of self-worth, and that in turn triggers other helpful behaviors toward both the person we are helping and other people, too.” The most surprising finding in her research was the scope of what she refers to as the “gratitude effect.”

In two of the gratitude experiments, 57 students were asked to provide feedback to a fictitious student, Eric, regarding his sloppy cover letter for a job. Half received a terse confirmation email: “I received your feedback on my cover letter.” The other half received an email of gratitude: “I received your feedback on my cover letter. Thank you so much! I am really grateful.” When the students’ sense of self-worth was measured afterward, 55 percent of the group that received gratitude felt a higher sense of self-worth, compared with only 25 percent from the just an acknowledgement group. In a follow-up experiment, participants received a second message from another fictitious student, Steven, asking for feedback on his cover letter. Not surprisingly, those students who had been in the gratitude group were two times more likely to help Steven then students in the no-gratitude group.

So next time you are about to board a bus, hit send on a reply email, or scroll through your newsfeeds, take a moment and think carefully. Are you expressing gratitude, thanks, and appreciation for others? Are you joining in the negative comments or aspiring to see and contribute to the positive? Seize every opportunity you can to say thank you, to focus on the positive. It’s just two words but they are enough to start a ripple effect of change in American civility.

Thank you for reading!

What’s wrong with Earth Day

Apr 18

—Photograph by Charles W. Harrity/AP

—Photograph by Charles W. Harrity/AP

I care deeply about our environment, but I’ve never been an enormous fan of Earth Day, which turns 45 next week. I’ve designed and supported environmental behavior change efforts from Beijing to Baltimore and beyond, and Earth Day never added significantly to the outcomes I sought. I also didn’t expect it to. The day was a reminder of the progress the environmental movement had made, but it also shined a bright light on the long road ahead with informational and attitudinal barriers still to address.

I know others will disagree about the role of Earth Day. But if you believe, like I do, that addressing the remarkable challenges of climate change and other environmental ailments requires a long-term approach to affect the existing social system that allows the problem to continue – social will, individual behaviors, and political will, for example – then you can easily argue that our contemporary Earth Day is just that, a single day. And to be clear, I’m not diminishing the accomplishments that have been made, including the viability of renewables and engaged corporate leadership.

In his book, Social Marketing in the 21st Century, Dr. Alan Andreasen reminds us that social change requires action, and that the burden of social change cannot and should not be placed solely on downstream actors. Change requires communication that influences policy or structural changes, too. The 1970 inaugural Earth Day helped do this. Leveraging the model of “teach-ins” from the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, it generated more than twelve thousand events and more than thirty-five thousand speakers and helped place environmental issues solidly on the political agenda, which helped establish the political will to pass the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as well as create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a 2013 article in The New Yorker. I seriously wonder whether, in today’s era of protests and marches about nearly every cause under the sun, Earth Day this year will have nearly as profound an impact as it did 45 years ago.

When I talk to others about social change in the context of environmental issues, I’m always eager to share EPA’s ENERGY STAR® story. It’s a simple and compelling one:

  • raise awareness nationally about the relationship of everyday energy use and the combustion and use of fossil fuels with a simple narrative (“The average home pollutes more than the average car.” Remember that one?),
  • create a value proposition and incentives for manufacturers to make products that use less energy (upstream actors),
  • define a simple action for consumers to take (“Look for the ENERGY STAR label – the easiest way to save money and protect the environment”), and
  • reinforce and reward the behaviors of upstream and downstream participants.

I’ve oversimplified it, but I hope the simplicity and thoughtfulness of the program’s market transformation design is evident. Eventually companies affirmatively desired to attach the ENERGY STAR label to their products.

Even with ENERGY STAR’s 25-year history of good storytelling, actionable messaging, and behavior reinforcement, and the numerous other environmental programs, today’s environment and climate concerns are not perfectly established. For example, consider the very real debate over the increased use of domestically produced natural gas, which has environmental advantages over the combustion of oil and coal, versus the legitimate concerns raised related to environmental and seismic impacts from increased domestic production. (More shocking are recent dust-ups related to some states prohibiting the use of the term “climate change” by state agencies!) Rarely do these issues top the agenda of concerns that result in legislative victories. According to recent studies, those concerns are at the bottom of the agenda. A 2014 Gallup study – which included testing “climate change” for the first time in its annual March Environment survey – showed this:

“Climate change and the quality of the environment rank near the bottom of a list of concerns for Americans, who are instead far more worried about more basic economic issues such as the economy, federal spending, and the affordability of healthcare. Concerns about the environment typically rank low among all Americans, but the current level of worry is even lower than in the past.”

In a new movement aimed at changing global attitudes toward climate change, the Vatican announced plans this week to convene a major climate change-themed summit on April 28, 2015. It’s called: “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity. The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development.” According to a Vatican website, one goal of the event is to “highlight the intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people – especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children, and future generations.” This event precedes the Pope’s expected summer release of his encyclical on the environment. An encyclical is the “highest form of papal writing” that informs and guides the Church’s teachings. With an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, this an interesting and contemporary example of an institution hoping to change the way a body of people – over which it has authority – addresses and responds to climate change. Interesting, too, is the explicit connection they make to basic economic issues that do dominate political agendas. The uber popularity and influence of Pope Francis makes this an issue worth paying attention to.

Despite survey findings and current debates, I’m optimistic about our ability as social marketers to influence and inform political and individual decisions, transform markets (upstream and midstream) to share the burden of change, and ultimately deliver environmental outcomes that meet the economic and social needs of our citizens and our planet. So, enjoy and celebrate Earth Day next week, as you should. And take the opportunity to recall the transformative impact it had 45 years ago as you consider new ways to advance a healthier environment.

Re-fashioning how we shop

Apr 03

On March 25, 2015 The Atlantic published “The Neurological Pleasures of Fast Fashion,” which illustrated how clothes shopping has transformed into a “widespread pastime, a powerfully pleasurable and sometimes addictive activity.” Not only has shopping become a recreational activity (one that I, too, enjoy), research now shows that the brain literally lights up when it finds a desirable object—specifically, when that desirable object is also a really great deal.

This delicious response is what has driven fast fashion stores, like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M, to record profits. With multiple shipments per week and wallet-friendly price points, shoppers can consistently get their fix with little damage to their budget. This effect is compounded by the fact that clothing represents an area of goods referred to as “high involvement,” meaning that these items give shoppers access to the lifestyle that they wish to live.

Translation: If I buy a cheap sweater that still looks like something modern-day princess Kate Middleton might wear, it means I feel more like modern-day princess Kate Middleton. And that’s addictive.

Unfortunately, this vision of luxury comes at the cost of a devastating environmental footprint and harsh labor conditions abroad. The EPA reported that in 2010, Americans tossed 13.1 million tons of textiles into landfills. This works out to approximately 68 pounds of fabric and clothes per person into the trash. According to figures from the U.S. National Labor Committee, some workers in China make as little as 12 to 18 cents per hour in poor conditions. These conditions are exemplified in the April 24, 2013 building collapse of the garment factory, Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh—the deadliest such disaster of its kind, killing more than 1,100 people, mostly women, because of unsafe working conditions.

Even consumers, who echo their commitment to the environment and shop sustainable items in other non-fashion industries, still routinely shop fast fashion. According to a 2012 article in the journal Fashion Theory called “Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands,” otherwise environmentally-minded consumers, who regularly purchased cheap, trend-driven clothing, saw little discrepancy between their positive attitudes towards sustainability and their choices to consume and dispose of cheaply-made clothes en masse.

How do we then, as communicators, demonstrate the negative environmental and social impact of our clothing consumption habits, and actually wean a nation of eager shoppers off their addiction to fast fashion?

Let’s look to slow food (an international movement started in the 1980s as an alternative to fast food) for inspiration. Due to a surge in awareness of inhumane practices in meat production and health concern about pesticides in our food over the past ten years, there was a renaissance in slow food. It is now not only accepted, but also popular to shop organic and to ask about the origins of your food. Your free-range egg, grass-fed cheese, and farm-raised bacon sandwich on locally-baked bread is the new normal. And perceived as tastier.

This is the lens with which we can affect the fashion industry. If clothing transfers aspects of the garment to its owner, then communicators can demonstrate that shopping sustainably makes you look even better. These customers will look cooler, savvier, and discerning by shopping “slow fashion” rather than cruising $5 t-shirts, and they will start a ripple effect among their peers. For example, if you wear a thrifted leather jacket, tell your friends. If you buy a locally-made dress, make sure you call it out as part of your #OOTD (outfit of the day, natch). Similarly, with education, fast fashion can become stigmatized and less desirable. Through gentle peer pressure and the desire to look cool among your friends, we can eventually transform the fashion industry and feel confident in the supply chains we support.

This change is already beginning. H&M offers in-store textile recycling (even netting you a discount to use in-store), and now sells the Conscious Collection, represented by actress/slow fashion advocate Olivia Wilde. Other stores like Everlane, Zady, The Reformation, Verdalina, and Eileen Fisher (personal favorites) specialize in sustainable, fair trade ways to give you your fashion fix. This way you can look good – and feel good doing it.

It won’t be easy to pry customers from the sale racks of fast fashion retailers, but there is a stylish way forward to finding a cleaner conscience, a cleaner closet, and a cleaner planet.

What’s In A Name?

Apr 02

My last post about Ogilvy’s rebranding of our “social marketing practice” to Social Change generated quite a bit of buzz in the social marketing community over the past few days – particularly on the social marketing listserv (

Knowing that this topic has been a source of much debate within the community for many years, I fully expected this. I’ve been following the discussion with much interest (and a little disappointment), and I wanted to share a few additional thoughts here.

First and foremost, our decision was not one that we took lightly. In fact, we discussed and debated it for many years because we believe so strongly in the discipline of social marketing. Ogilvy has been working in the field since the mid-1980s, when we were fortunate to help CDC be among the first government agencies to market public health with the landmark America Responds to AIDS program.

We still use and embrace the term social marketing whenever we are talking to and working with clients like CDC and many other government agencies who understand it, appreciate it and continue to ask for it by name. However, we work with a wide range of clients in the social marketing/social purpose/social change/purpose marketing/cause marketing/[your term here] arena.

Although it pained us to admit it, fewer and fewer of them use and understand the term social marketing. This is true not only among our corporate clients but among non-profits and foundations as well. “Social marketing” is simply not part of their language… it’s not even on their radar.

Is Social Change a perfect term? Of course not, it has baggage too. But in our research (yes, we tested a number of options with our government, non-profit and corporate clients before deciding on Social Change), it was the clear winner. For us, it was simply a matter of meeting our audience where they are, which is what we advise our clients to do every day.

I greatly respect the opinions of those who disagree with our decision, and who prefer to continue to champion the term social marketing. I also greatly appreciate the words of encouragement (or at least understanding) from others who see why we came to find the term to be challenging for our business audience.

For those who are not on the social marketing listserv, here are some excerpts from the discussion that is taking place there (names omitted). I’d welcome any additional comments here as well. Thanks for reading and engaging!

  • I think we’re going on almost 10 years now as a field in which the term “social marketing” has only become more diluted. A Google search for resources in our field is almost useless. While I still use the term “social marketing” on a regular basis (it’s my URL for gosh sakes), I nearly always on first reference will describe what I do as “marketing for social impact” when I don’t know if the other person is familiar with the term. I think this is hurting us as a field. I think about what I would tell a client who has invested a lot of time and resources into a program name that just isn’t resonating with their audience. Maybe it’s time to transition to a more meaningful and descriptive name. We don’t have to give up “social marketing” but if we want people to find us and understand what we’re about, we may need to augment the term. The question is, is our audience those who don’t already know about our powerful social marketing approach, or is our audience us? We need to eat our own dog food and brand ourselves in a way that connects with the people we want to reach as a field.
  • I think Ogilvy is spot-on. It is so draining to have to start every conversation about Social Marketing with the phrase “it’s not Social Media.” Such talk is disempowering, deflects the importance of our field, and causes our audience to glaze-over. It is absolutely, IMHO, hurting our brand.
  • I agree completely with the need for re-branding. As a young professional and student, I find that over time I have sought more and more distance from the term ‘social marketing’ for all of the reasons mentioned above. Even when speaking with fellow public health researchers and professionals, I discover halfway through the conversation that their understanding of social marketing is not the same as mine. The trend to shy away from labeling ourselves ‘social marketers’ is a sign. We need to find a way to market social marketing better and I would not rule out changing the name of the discipline.
  • Sorry to disagree with you. Wonderful things happen when people ask me to explain social marketing. I get into a much larger discussion than if I say that I am a practitioner of social change. They never quite thought of marketing in that way and they see it as a whole new tool box. Then if I give them a copy of [the] Social Marketing book, and they are stunned by how many great examples of successful social marketing already exist. And the listserv social marketing network itself allows a quick search for help on any social marketing problem.
  • I can tell you from extensive personal experience that people of good intellect and good will are put off by our having to run through the “it’s not social media” litany prior to discussing what our discipline really is. Their first and overwhelming impression, from our name, is that we are social media. Why dissipate our energy and theirs on a naming mishap?
  • I do understand all that would have to evolve were we to take the brave step of rebranding ourselves (urls, books, journals, business cards, certificates and degree programs…) – but it could happen over time. The important thing, IMHO, is that we project a positive, contemporary image going forward, without having to explain that “we named ourselves before social media came to be.” How old-fashioned a description that makes us sound!!
  • I agree there is a lot of confusion from those outside the field on “what is social marketing.” Very often when I see the term it does not refer to the process we intend. Just some food for thought: In trying to explain this again the other day I came upon a critique new to me. The people didn’t object to the “social” part, they immediately turned-off at the word “marketing,” as they associated it with underhanded manipulation. If we’re re-thinking the brand, perhaps it’s not just confusion with social media that holds the name back from broader acceptance. I’m sure some focus groups could give other insights on if and how a change could be good.
  • I have several reasons for wanting to leave it as Social Marketing: (1) Social Change is “nebulous/broad.” We are only one of many strategies for social change. We’d have to always explain what our particular strategy is. (2) Social Change Marketing has the same problem. You could be marketing social change strategies without a focus on our unique sales proposition (USP) which is behavior change. (3) Social Marketing equity, as others have mentioned: Journals, Conferences, Associations, Degrees, Courses, Certificates, Government RFPs. (4) Social media did shorten from social media marketing . . . that helped. (5) I find it is a good and quick attention getter and conversation starter.
  • Marketing in Brazil, for instance, has the worst connotations among the general public and even among educated people. Using the word marketing here to explain what social marketing is about is a sure way to turn the audience off. Unless I am talking to people from the commercial world or from some leading non-profits. Depending on the recipient, I have been using several terms such as behavioral design, behavior change management, behavioral engineering and so on. This is not good, it hurts brand equity and it does not help in the positioning of social marketing. Only when I feel that I am on firm ground I move to use social marketing. In other words, I strive to tailor the talking to the audience. My feeling is that we are lost in the long tail of conceptual approaches, mixed with social media marketing, cause marketing, public advocacy etc.
  • From a UK and European perspective Social Marketing is I find a very helpful term to describe the development of social programs that seek to create social value from a citizen’s perspective. I have also worked in over 20 countries and have found that people have no problem with the term. Social marketing is also a term that many governments now use and it is endorsed by ECDC and WHO Europe, etc. I think it is always helpful to seek to develop better ways to describe what we do but its also important to recognise that there is a growing theoretical academic base and evidence base for social marketing. This is only going to grow. So it’s important to be protective of our ‘brand’ and as well as worrying about some confusion celebrate the growing influence and acceptance of social marketing around the world.
  • Some of you want to be social change agents, the most over-used and inarticulate statement for being since “innovation?” and what is this “social change” you aspire to doing? Kumbaya and empowerment? Community development and grassroots organizing? Political and legal advocacy? Teaching people in developing countries to be “entrepreneurs”? Holding up every project for good as the creat of the wave of social entrepreneurship that will save the world? What if we helped them build individual and community assets (using marketing), helped them focus on their priority problems and groups, made markets work for the poor rather than leaving them to fend for themselves cloaked in the respectability of being “entrepreneurs?” Said to social entrepreneurs, “I respect what you’re trying to do and I have some tricks to help you do it better.” My, that was a bit tough -wasn’t it? But more true than some of you may think. What is “social change” – and why would a PR agency presume to be in that line of work, really? Are most clients, or would be clients, really out to change the world (yes there are a few, but many fewer than you know)? And are they actually trying to change the world, or solve a specific problem they have – or sense some group of people has?
  • From the perspective of an established practitioner, it may make sense to associate yourself with social marketing because you don’t necessarily need people to understand your ‘elevator speech’. But from the perspective of someone just entering the field of public health, it is frustrating and ineffective to associate myself with a field that no one understands. The fact of the matter is, either something needs to change or people like me will just stop using the term because it is not helping us move forward in our careers.
  • I use many different terms to identify, define, explain, and persuade decision makers to use social marketing strategies. So tailoring to my audience is key for me. Many of you who know me know that I think about audience first. So I try to read up on an audience, ask them a few questions and listen so I can then decide how to approach them about social marketing. Then I might start using the SM language interspersed to introduce them to the concepts. But we don’t have to fully educate every potential user on all of OUR jargon and details in order to get them to “buy or use” our services. If we do we’re lost as a field. And by the way, that’s contrary to our field’s whole notion of practice…So what? So what if we use social marketing for our journals and conferences, so what if we use a different term when we write a proposal, so what if we use a different term when we talk to a decision-maker, or a program manager? We can always bring the uneducated along and explain the history of our field, the evolution, and where we are now, if they’re interested. If they’re not interested then we need to be on their wavelength to start with…We’re not a brand in the classical sense of having a single organizational home that builds, adapts, distributes, and promotes a unique and beneficial offering to its audiences. We have multiple homes in many countries with varying cultures and different histories of the meaning of the word social and marketing. We can’t ask professionals in those places to ignore their own landscape, lest they become the Ford Pinto, Pepsi Brings You Back to Life, or Got Milk examples when introduced in other cultures (