Ramakrishnan Ganesan had never heard of NGOs, development work, or social marketing when he began his career in business as a market researcher selling products like soaps, shampoos, and tea. Then a colleague approached him to become a researcher at PSI. Ram said, “Basically what attracted me was this pitch that it’s always easier to market soap to a household. It is much more difficult to market family planning.” So he chose the more challenging problems to solve. Even today, as Chief of Party at Abt Associates in New Delhi, India, Ram is still driven by a challenge.
He said, “The concept to me is so powerful, that it still attracts me, drives me, keeps me going—the notion that if you market well, and keep the consumer needs wants aspirations in mind as well as the objective, you will be able to achieve your goals and save lives. Pursuing excellence in that excites me.”
COMMERCIAL SECTOR APPROACH
An HIV prevention project during his time at PSI called Operation Lighthouse [http://www.psi.org/resources/research-metrics/publications/briefs/indias-operation-lighthouse-breaking-mold-traditionalz] shines as one example of how applying the commercial sector approach works well for social initiatives. Ram shared that this program’s outreach plan originally called for 20 outreach workers and one television ad, as many communications programs do. However, when he and his team at PSI calculated the population they wanted to reach, he said they found the number of outreach workers needed was 200, not 20. He said, “Suddenly people sat up and noticed.”
In looking at the plan for a single TV ad, Ram recalls, “We said look, this is our main communication vehicle. Take it as seriously as Coke would take its TV ads.” He knew that a campaign done through mass media would require placing an ad at least six times to expect some type of change and that they would need to set benchmarks for reach and frequency, plus develop clear expectations for results. Additionally, he said, in a commercial marketing campaign, you would not rely on one medium (a single ad). You would reach them point-of-sale, run ads on other channels, and develop a method to surround and engage the audience. So they came up with innovative ads, street theater shows, and contests. Eventually, the award-winning program generated a 15 percent increase in condom use, among other high level indicators. While the company name PSI was not recognizable to the average person, the campaign name, “Balbir Pasha Ko AIDS Hoga Kya? (Will Balbir Pasha get AIDS?)” was recognizable and powerful. (See the Balbir Pasha case study.)
One of the most critical components of marketing communications, in Ram’s opinion, is to keep the message fresh. He cited a separate “Healthy Highways” program directed at truck drivers that used one single flip chart for five years. Once the project was revised/refreshed, and outreach workers were trained on how to convey a tailored and updated message, the program became one of the most successful in the donor’s history.
SOCIAL MARKETING IN INDIA
Ram said the social marketing context in India is fairly unique. “To some extent, we need to rethink how we do social marketing here.” One example is that of 250 brands of condoms in India, even the highest-priced condom is probably generally affordable. So if social marketing organizations are building a market for commercial sector to take over, they have done their job in India. He said, “It has been a source of personal disappointment for me, and a criticism of many people in India.” He added, “I keep telling them what you see in practice is not necessarily what social marketing is about. It can be done right and can be done wrong in one place… let’s not shoot the school for one particular problem.” Ram said he has seen strong Social Marketing efforts around agriculture and food security, anti-smoking, tuberculosis, non-communicable diseases, hypertension, and other issues India. He said, “A lot of Social Marketing happens. I talk about family planning because that’s the area where I work.”
TRENDS IN SOCIAL MARKETING OVER TIME
Ram said he has seen a trend for social marketers toward specialization, saying, “The trend now is consolidation and focus on core strengths.” Similarly, there is a move away from “cross fertilization” of knowledge across projects.
The tendency now to train and build capacity in specialized staff that may be gone when a project ends concerns him. He said, “Institutional memory is a big thing… if only one organization knew all the wrong things it did, would save so much money.” He explained, “The memory of things gone wrong is most often what we lose first—the ability to say, ‘For God’s sake, don’t do that again.’” He summarized, “I think consolidation is a response to reduction in funding as well as competition. The market was growing, but now external pressures forcing people to look at what they are really good at, and can deliver most efficiently.”
WHAT MOVES US
With all of his experience in social marketing, Ram has been most surprised to see the influence that our aspirations and emotions have on our actions. He said, “The aspirational element matters more than the rational element across the board. Irrespective of socioeconomic stratus.” A good example of this in practice was a project in Cambodia where two water filter products were made available for purchase. One was a basic, plastic bucket. The other was the same product in efficacy and output, but was more “jazzed up” with elegant curves and smooth edges, sitting on a stand.
The basic model was offered at around $12, the other at nearly twice the price at around $22. Ram said, “The factory product outsold the other one 9 times to 1! …I expected it would sell at least as much because it looked better, but 9 times to 1, I didn’t expect.” (See the report.) Thinking about the influence of aspirational elements on our emotions purchasing decisions, he said, “It defies conventional logic.”