Health is a desirable commodity. This is why wellness organizations employ marketing companies to create messages to help shape, or change, behaviors that are harmful to people’s health and well-being. Recently, one communications firm, Brodeur Partners, a global PR agency based in Boston, conducted a research survey that showed although Americans flock to gyms and are renowned for being fitness fiends, they aren’t as devoted to maintaining a healthy diet.

Here, Real Health chats with Andrea Coville, the CEO of Brodeur Partners, who developed the concept of relevance research, a communication strategy that helps businesses create messages that drive behavioral change.

Your survey concludes that healthy eating isn’t being sold and marketed correctly. What communication strategies do you think might motivate people to really internalize making healthier food choices?

Here are several strategies for your consideration:

There’s value to eating well. Any communications strategies around healthy eating need to be considered in the larger context of factors that can prevent people from eating well. For example, there are the factors of will power, food availability, poverty and education. But for consumers who understand the value of eating well and have the means to do that, we have a key conclusion for more effective communication around better eating.

When you’re healthy, you look better. Consumers are constantly told to eat our fruits and vegetables as a way to live longer and avoid disease. But longevity (thinking pathway) isn’t what motivates people who eat well to eat well. Rather, it is a desire to physically feel better (sensory pathway) and look better (community pathway) today.

Appeals exclusively to our thinking brain can be surprisingly weak. Invoking sensory considerations such as the prospect of feeling better through eating better, or community considerations such as wanting to be attractive to others, can make a concept like healthy eating more relevant to an audience. So can invoking values. Good people who appreciate the gift of life do the right thing: They don’t eat crap.

There are emotional rewards that come from being healthy. Consumers have gotten the memo on exercise, as the survey documented. To promote better eating, we can learn from successful exercise marketers. Specifically, the marketing of exercise tracks people’s emotional motivations. If you work out, you are going to feel and look better.

However, outside of specialty foods and services, such as Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers, much of the marketing of proper diet emphasizes rational health benefits, not the emotional promises of exercise.

We are told to eat our fruits and vegetables to avoid disease (for example, hypertension, cholesterol, etc.) and to live longer. But that is not what motivates people who eat well to eat well. Again, it is a desire to physically feel and look better today.

Stress that healthy eating is satisfying. Quick question: how do you reward yourself for a hard workout? If you’re like many Americans, you’re thinking of pizza, burgers, cookies, ice cream and booze. We need to change people’s thinking and position healthy foods as a fully satisfying reward. Healthy food today is typically perceived as a necessary evil. Consider broccoli; this veggie is a metaphor for something that’s good for us but unpleasant.

A good diet boosts exercise benefits. TV shows like The Biggest Loser help fuel a perception that exercise is the No. 1 way to lose weight. Well, science is telling us that diet is a more powerful tool (though doing both is the ideal solution). If weight loss is your goal, you get a lot of bang for your effort when you diet. I don’t think even the most conscientious among us are truly aware of this, and it’s a fact worth reinforcing. Although the relative benefits of diet are a thinking consideration, it’s a compelling one.

Spotlight role models. It’s important to put research through a generational filter. We found that millennials are leading by example: Fifty-one percent of millennials (those ages 18 to 34) said they eat healthy foods most or all the time, versus 40 percent of Gen X (those ages 35 to 50) and 44 percent of boomers (those ages 51 to 69). For more effective healthy food marketing, it would make sense to spotlight them and have them make direct appeals to the other generations.
Strategies like these would cascade into tactics whose specifics would depend on what exactly an organization is promoting. Whatever the offering is, you would first identify the key influencers in that space, such as journalists, analysts, critics, celebrities, athletes or YouTube stars. Then, determine the ways they wield their influence, such as traditional media, social channels, blogs or events; then meet them where they are with the right combination of advertising, marketing, public relations, content, and social media, speeches, events, sales calls, etc.

Can you give an example from one of Brodeur’s previous health campaigns that you think successfully triggered positive changes in its target audience?

Well, we helped the American Cancer Society (ACS) cope with some major challenges and trigger positive changes in its followers.

Despite its sterling reputation, the ACS realized many people lacked a solid understanding of the value it offers. At the same time, new competitors were generating support in more contemporary ways.

We took a fresh look at the ACS’s value proposition—helping people get well, stay well, find cures, and fight cancer—and rebranded the organization in an exciting new way, as “The Official Sponsor of Birthdays.”

We created an online movement of advocates dedicated to making more birthdays possible, and it grew to more than a half a million members. We involved the National Football League in the movement. Celebrities were enlisted to record videos of themselves singing “Happy Birthday.” Showtime became a partner through their cancer-themed show The Big C. Eventually, we helped take the movement global. Our content reached over 1 million people per week.

One interesting initiative within the campaign was called “Choose You.” It was a nationwide movement to spotlight a sobering statistic: one in three women will get cancer in her lifetime. “Choose You” was designed to inspire women to put their health first in order to stay well and help prevent cancer.

How do you strike a balance between being a business that simply markets its clients’ health messages and one that strives to spark positive behavioral changes in people that would improve their health and quality of life?

If a business is not changing someone’s behavior, the business is not relevant. And if it’s just pumping out messages, it’s no different from millions of businesses on the planet that aren’t connecting as well as they should.

Relevance is the full impact of a product, brand, idea or cause—one that changes not only minds but behavior.

We have a systematic approach. We perform in-depth research on the client and its competitors. We analyze what’s being said in the marketplace and identify the people and institutions with the most influence. We get creative with our client through a highly interactive Relevance Lab. Then we develop new messages and campaigns.

Importantly, we test these new concepts so that we have a strong indication of what will work before the client invests too heavily in them. As we deploy campaigns, messages and content across various channels, we measure all of these activities and interactions and continuously optimize them. The goal is always to promote behavior change reflected by, for example, purchases, sign-ups and attendance, among other variables.