Socially Conscious Marketing Endeavors Benefit Communities and Practices

Medical Group Management Marketer's Guidepost, Vol. 10, No. 6, November/December 1999

By Jeanan Yasiri, FACMPE, MGMA member

We were enjoying a patio party at a friend's home when the Nicotine Police stormed onto the scene.

"Stop smoking!" yelled 4-year-old Marius.

My husband, Scott, had just put a cigarette in his mouth and was getting ready to light it. With the cigarette still hanging limp from his lips, he stopped and stared squarely into the eyes of his pint-sized accuser.

"Drop that cigarette now!" Marius commanded. As he stormed up the steps, Marius' mother explained that her son's vigilance was the result of a program at his preschool intended to influence even 4-year-olds to stay away from tobacco.

Later in the evening, 6-year-old Shea, a graduate of the "Don't Start Smoking" program reminded Scott that her birthday was next week and that it would be a perfect time for him to stop.

The next day, socially, if not otherwise ostracized, Scott swore he would quit.

It's too early to tell whether Marius' and Shea's message will stick with Scott, but their attempts were as successful as any health care marketing effort can hope to be. They raised awareness, then moved Scott to consider the implications and finally to act.

Why take on a social cause?

There are all kinds of obvious reasons for developing socially conscious marketing campaigns. If we can raise awareness on an important issue and change behavior, our patients will enjoy healthier lives, and we will accomplish what medical practice is all about: keeping people well.

Other reasons are less obvious but just as important. Consumers are more savvy today than ever, and they scrutinize money spent luring them to particular products or services. In fact, a recent Cone Roper survey found that 78 percent of consumers are more likely to do business with a company that is associated with a cause they deem important.

In fact, 66 percent of consumers said they would switch brands and 62 percent would switch retailers to support a cause they care about. In households with annual incomes above $50,000, the percentage of consumers willing to switch brands - even if it meant the product would cost more - jumped to 82 percent.

The beauty of a socially conscious marketing plan is that it achieves two important ends: Raising awareness about your practice and about an issue of community importance.

Crash Helmet: A medical center's success story

There are different approaches to gaining appropriate attention through social awareness. In this article, Sheryl Thies, vice president for marketing at Dean Medical Center, Madison, Wis., talks about her organization's "Crash Helmet" marketing campaign, a socially conscious endeavor designed to educate young children and their parents about bicycle helmet safety.

At the center of the campaign is a cartoon character called Crash Helmet. Crash not only provides a tangible image with whom youngsters can identify, but also promotes an important public health concern in the south-central Wisconsin health care market.

Jeanan Yasiri: Why did Dean initiate the Crash Helmet campaign 10 years ago?

Sheryl Thies: The campaign came right on the heels of some negative publicity we had experienced, and we wanted to help people in the community weigh in their minds that Dean does good things. We wanted them to realize that we were committed to children and their safety. We also had a group of pediatricians, family practitioners and a neurosurgeon, Steven Toutant, M.D., who wanted to do something to prevent head injuries in kids.

We had a limited budget, so in order to get Crash Helmet off the ground, we had to narrow our focus. We knew it would be relatively difficult to change teenagers' behavior. Instead, we aimed to reach younger kids when they were most impressionable about bicycle safety - when they were first learning to ride a bike. And, rather than including other sports such as skiing and rollerblading in our campaign, we decided to focus solely on bicycle safety.

Getting the word out

JY: How did you promote the campaign to the public?

ST: The dollars we committed helped make Crash Helmet an instant success. Even though we were focusing on 4- and 5-year olds, we had a two-pronged approach. We needed to influence them so they would want to wear a helmet, but we also needed to target parents, who would provide the helmets for their children.

JY: Was there a catch phrase or slogan that was helpful in getting the word out?

ST: Yes, it's "Don't be a Street Stain." It was difficult to come up with that, because the physicians would say, "Let's just say it's cool to wear your helmet." But if you think about kids' behavior, they tend to poke fun at other kids who dare to be different. So we wanted to give them something that would arm them against teasing from their peers. "Don't be a street stain" is certainly graphic enough to stop people in their tracks.

JY: How is Crash visually represented?

ST: Crash is an animated cartoon that speaks to kids, and we have a live mascot who visits fairs, day care centers, elementary schools and other locations to deliver an educational message. The mascot really adds intrigue for the kids. In addition, Dr. Toutant is featured in commercials touting the messages of the campaign.

Gauging success

JY: Were people in Madison wearing bike helmets before the campaign?

ST: Some, but very few. The City Transportation Department has publicly credited Dean Medical Center for single-handedly increasing helmet usage in the city. We also gauged our success according to the rate at which people redeemed a coupon that we offered in conjunction with local bicycle retailers, for $5 off the cost of a helmet. At the end of the first season, we found that, collectively, bike helmet sales had increased by 300 percent among these retailers. And that was just over one summer.

JY: How much money was initially committed to the campaign?

ST: When we began the Crash Helmet campaign 10 years ago, we committed $70,000. That covered shooting the television spots, purchasing the media placements and designing and creating the mascot's costume. Fortunately, the advertising agency we were working with really believed in our campaign and wanted it to succeed, so they provided lots of in-kind services.

JY: You've been involved in a number of other campaigns over the last 10 years. Has anything compared to the success of Crash Helmet?

ST: No, and I think one of the key reasons is because Dean owns Crash Helmet. You can always join a good cause, but you don't own the cause, you share in it. We wanted something that Dean could own so that when people weighed in their minds how they felt about us, the campaign would provide them with balance.

JY: Tell me about the success of the Crash Helmet mascot in the community.

ST: People can't seem to get enough of Crash, and we can hardly keep up with the requests. We actually have three costumes now. Last year alone, Crash Helmet appeared at 89 events, reaching 1,848 kids in schools and day care centers. This doesn't include public parades or city events, where thousands of people are exposed to Crash. The crowd's response to Crash at parades is unbelievable. Children yell out, "Crash Helmet" I wear my helmet!" It's amazing!

JY: What is your advice to other groups planning a campaign like this?

ST: I would encourage people to come up with something that the practice can own, and to which they are willing to commit to mass communication dollars so that the public comes to recognize it as part of the organization