How evidence-based marketing can change public health and nutrition for good

A new study by UNSW Business School shows how businesses and brands can provide more credible and trustworthy food and nutrition messages to the public

It’s no secret that Australians of all ages generally have a poor diet. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, most Australians do not eat enough of the five food groups. They consume too many discretionary foods high in salt, fat, and sugar.

Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017–18 National Health Survey show that one in two (49 per cent) people aged over 18 do not eat the recommended two servings of fruit, while over nine in 10 (92 per cent) did not eat the recommended five to six serves of vegetables.

Lifestyle-related chronic disease is the nation’s biggest health problem, and poor nutrition contributes to increases in conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, cancer, and diabetes. But why does the public continue to consume food that’s unhealthy when research has shown (for a long time) that inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption, in particular, is a considerable risk factor?

“The rise of non-communicable diseases like most heart diseases and cancers is a manifestation of a global economic system that prioritises wealth creation over health creation,” explains Lara Gray, Head of Product and Operations at Good Mood Dudes, an organisation that creates and runs holistic health programs covering nutrition, sleep, fitness, and mental health for busy professionals.

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Organisations like Good Mood Dudes are tackling Australia's health crisis through evidence-based methodologies. Image: Shutterstock

Ms Gray completed an MBA from AGSM @ UNSW Business School in 2014, and during this time, she moved from a large media company to a small growing start-up in the health and wellbeing industry. This experience, combined with her MBA, gave her a passion for working in small businesses, specifically focusing on improving public wellbeing. She says she hopes to use her experience in digital product development to deliver engaging experiences for clients for years to come.

“I find working in health and wellbeing fascinating due to the impact evolving technology is having in this space and the huge challenge of the necessary changes required to improve public health,” she says.

A history of mixed messaging about health and nutrition

So, what are some of the changes needed to improve public health, specifically regarding health and nutrition in Australia? One of the biggest challenges is the mixed messaging surrounding healthy and nutritious food. Every day, the public is faced with conflicting and confusing messages about what is and what is not healthy. This is partly due to the influence of the food industry on the government and policies.

“As the influence of corporations has grown, governments around the world have stepped back from their responsibility to protect public health by privatising key services, weakening regulations, for example, around marketing processed foods to children, and cutting funding for consumer and environmental protection,” says Ms Gray.

ealthy or unhealthy food. Concept photo of healthy and unhealthy food. Fruits and vegetables vs donuts,sweets and burgers on table.jpg
To minimise health and nutrition misinformation the government should ban all processed food marketing targeting children and sport. Image: Shutterstock

One of the worst things the Australian government ever did for nutritional messaging (and therefore the diet quality of Australians) was to allow the food industry a seat at the table when developing the Health Star Rating for front of packet labelling, she explains. “The Australian food industry was able to use its market position to influence agenda setting in the policy and regulatory context. The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) offered a solution that policymakers liked that appeared to be addressing the problem via the Health Star Rating system."

However, the way the rating system works is flawed. “Food products get stars depending on the balance between only certain nutrients, and not on the number of ingredients (including several that are chemicals) or level of food processing the food has undergone,” she says.

To provide credible and trustworthy food and nutrition messages to the public, Ms Gray says the government needs to minimise the influence of the food industry in policymaking and messaging on food. She also urges the government to approach food marketing as it does smoking:

  • Heavily tax the food industry
  • Regulate the amount of processed food sold
  • Ban all processed food marketing in sport and to children.

Read more: For him it rains, for her it pours: how weather and gender impact consumption

What responsibility do brands have?

But brands should also reflect on their values and mission before embarking on marketing tactics to promote health and nutrition; for example, they can decide to utilise and encourage only evidence-based information. “We believe that food brands should not be allowed to market to children and that we should all be eating a minimally processed plant-based diet,” says Ms Gray.

With this in mind, she says there is also a broader opportunity for primary food producers to leverage marketing tactics used by processed food brands to promote unprocessed food to the public more effectively. “Empathy is a must in promoting behaviour change – we encourage people to make small changes and offer regular encouragement and reminders along the way,” she adds.

Good Mood Dudes use marketing strategies in all their programs to create awareness and promote ongoing encouragement and participation. “We always return to our stance of providing food information that is evidence-based and presented by experts. We find that this cuts through the noise, and our audience welcomes the opportunity to ask questions based on their existing knowledge and what they’ve learnt.

“In terms of presentation, we’ve found that video works well in the social media context, especially when presenting healthy, visually appealing recipes,” she concludes.

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One study provides evidence that negative messages about the effects of unhealthy food are more effective in leading to a cut in their consumption. Image: Shutterstock

What does responsible messaging look like?

A recent study: Message Framing Effects on Food Consumption: A Social Marketing Perspective, published in the Australian Journal of Management, co-authored by Associate Professor Nitika Garg and Dr Rahul Govind, Senior Lecturer in the School of Marketing at UNSW Business School, shows people react the most to negative messages about health and nutrition.

Describing the motivations for the study, A/Prof. Garg says: “I wanted to apply social marketing tactics, just to see whether we could nudge people to consume more healthfully [something to address the health crisis in Australia].”

Overall, the study found negative messages were more effective in leading to a cut in unhealthy consumption, even when positive messages were noted as being more informative and more attractive by consumers. She says the most surprising thing about the findings was just how strong the negative messages were in their impact compared to positive messages: positive messages were half as effective as negative messages even if they were considered more attractive and informative.

The findings suggest that consumers respond more to emotions than they do to cognition. However, messages that are too negative don’t work either. “There is research to show that when you increase the fear component or the negative effect component too much in social marketing, people push back and start avoiding the message,” says A/Prof. Garg.

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Policies looking to tackle Australia's poor nutrition should address the availability and affordability of healthier foods. Image: Shutterstock

Real change starts at the grassroots level

The problem with food is its necessity. Urging people to be healthier means asking people to be more conscious and mindful in what they eat, how they eat and how much they eat. Even if this is successful, the market itself is not set up to support people in this way, as there is more unhealthy food available at a much lower price than healthy food. 

“If as a policymaker, I’m trying to say, ‘eat healthfully,’ then I need to have policies that are looking at the grassroots level. How can I make it more accessible and more affordable? I can tell people to eat healthily and maybe they get convinced, but if they can’t afford it, it’s not helpful,” explains A/Prof. Garg.

Everyone, including consumers, businesses, and the government, must work together because everyone has a stake in this issue. At an individual level, it is about health. At the societal level, it should be in the interest of the government and the policymakers to have healthier individuals because that impacts the outcome for the whole community and society.

Government campaigns like Eat for Health do exist, and it would be interesting to know how effective they are. “It would be interesting to understand the policymaker’s perspective, their constraints, and their issues in getting the message across,” says A/Prof. Garg. “It’s not just about money, and it’s not just about the short-term effect. It would help if you had all stakeholders on the same side here,” she says.

Businesses are caught in the middle, as they are catering to the demand. “Maybe they want to be more proactive in today’s world and not just respond to the demand,” concludes A/Prof. Garg.

For more information on consumer behaviour research, please contact Associate Professor Nitika Garg in the School of Marketing at UNSW Business School.


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