An interview with Prof. Jeff French

Following the September 15th announcement from the White House of an Executive Order to incorporate “behavioral science insights” into governmental public health program work, the International Social Marketing Association (iSMA) would like to offer our newsletter and web as a platform for continued discussion on what this Order can mean for Social Marketers, to think through together how to highlight the Social Marketing potential of the Order and move the language into practice, how to begin incorporating Social Marketing frameworks and Behavioral Science where applicable into program work, and in short, outline the many ways that this EO provides an opportunity for Social Marketing practice to expand in the United States.

In our last edition of the iSMA newsletter, Craig Lefebvre provided an introduction to, overview of, and commentary on the Executive Order. Craig outlined significant steps that should be incorporated on varying levels by programs to bring the Order to life for Social Marketers (Read the Article). From creating a Social Marketing framework approach, to incorporating the audience in all stages of the process, Social Marketing may be on the brink of realizing its moment to more broadly implement its tried and true principles, which will move awareness campaigns into measurable behavior change projects.

Based on the fact that the Social Marketing discipline was integrated with the government in the United Kingdom (UK) for many years, I was eager to hear from Jeff French, who was asked by the UK Government to undertake the National Social Marketing Strategy for Health in the UK, to know more about his experience with SM being aligned with the government, and to hear his perspective on the Executive Order and where opportunities and similarities may lie. In his work in SM, Jeff chaired the development of a set of national occupational standers for Social Marketers, which, coming from the government, served to legitimize the process of embedding SM as expected, standard practice.

Jeff stated that this Order is, “a great boost for social marketing as it acknowledges the positive role that systematically-designed, evidence-based, and audience-insight driven social programs can have. It also signals a move away from spending large amounts of money on promotional campaigns that are not part of a more systemic approach to good practice in influencing behaviour for social good.” He says that it was really the review that he and his team compiled called, “It’s Our Health” that was, “the catalyst for embedding SM into the operating DNA of all government departments. It lead to the publication of two national strategies by the government for SM but more importantly it legitimized SM as a key set of evidence and citizen insight driven principles that should be common place in all social programs.”

Jeff points out that the UK government, “twin–tracked support for the application of behavioural science and economic thinking into social policy design together with a more open and transparent approach to planning and evaluation. The ideological bedrock that underpins this approach is a commitment to understand, to work with and through citizens to engage them in the coproduction of solutions rather than simply try to influence them.” Jeff’s statement echoes Craig’s points and are the basis for a successful Social Marketing program.

However, the limitations of the behavioural sciences and economics approach alone has come to light as exemplified in the, “House of Lords Review” which concluded that the actual evidence for these kinds of interventions is really quite limited, and subsequent evaluation reports by the UK behavioural Insight Unit about their contributions to social policy delivery has confirmed that they have made only
a very modest contribution to the overall performance and cost savings across government.” These disciplines have supplied, “insights about how and when to intervene”, but “SM supplies the insights about how to develop, test implement and evaluate programmes that empower and influence.”

A Behavioural Insight Team was created in the UK, PMs’ office five years ago. “I think a lot of this experience has been tapped into by the US administration, members of the team have acted as advisors, as they also have done to the Australian government.”

Additional benefits of an alignment of Behavioural and Social insights/marketing with the government is that, “today SM is a term that is used and mostly understood my many thousands of workers across national and local government. And there is also much less tolerance of media-only focused campaigns, the origination that used to run these for government was closed in the wake of the reforms outlined above.”

 Prof. Jeff French

Follow on Twitter @JeffFrenchSSM 


With the many successes the UK has enjoyed by the marriage of Government and Social Marketing, Jeff targets specific challenges ahead:

  • To build more and a better informed commissioning of programs
  • To ensure that there is ongoing improvement in provider/supplier market capacity, capability, and quality
  • To ensure that SM is integrated as part of mainstream policy and strategy formulation as well as operational delivery

A huge thank you to Jeff for sharing his thoughts with us. Jeff will be speaking on this topic at the Agents of Change Summit, February 8-9 in San Diego, CA

His new book which addresses many of these issues is now available: Strategic Social Marketing, Jeff French and Ross Gordon Sage 2015:

Please take part in this ongoing discussion by providing your thoughts. And stay-tuned for additional perspectives from those involved in the Executive Order and others in the Social Marketing community in February’s iSMA Newsletter.


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