Global Business School for Health


Why is marketing relevant to disease prevention?

16 January 2023

Dr Marzena Nieroda, Lecturer in Marketing and Commercialisation at the UCL Global Business School for Health, discusses why marketing is relevant to disease prevention.

virus floats on white background

I do like the month of January. Not because of short days and gloomy weather. I like it because I find it very motivating to see many of my colleagues, friends and family members taking on new resolutions, goals, and challenges for the upcoming year. Many of my colleagues are marketers, and I have to say, they do a fantastic job in spreading the word about goal setting, personal development, forming healthy habits and so on. Seeing so many posts on social media (probably more on LinkedIn than other channels) always helps me to set some goals myself. This positive wave of energy made me write this post – hoping we can plan for better use of our marketing toolbox for the purpose of disease prevention. 

Many of the goals people tend to set relate to undertaking more physical activity, taking care of better dieting habits, drinking or smoking less and spending more time with their loved ones. Interestingly, many of those behaviours are classified as modifiable risk factors for many diseases, including cancer (see this recent review of risk factors for pancreatic cancer). Each disease has risk factors, that is conditions that can contribute to an increased risk of developing the disease. There are modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors. Modifiable risk factors relate to factors where we can take actions to change our risk, and potentially reduce our risk. Non-modifiable factors cannot be changed. Many lifestyle choices (including reducing smoking, alcohol consumption and healthy weight management achieved with a good balance of physical activity and diet) are modifiable risk factors for many cancers and other diseases. 

Thinking about new year's resolutions and my work in relation to disease prevention, I cannot stop thinking that there is a potential for marketing to support public health efforts directed at disease prevention. What is currently done well by a handful of people on social media, can turn into a potentially successful and quickly spreading behaviour change initiative. However, we need to make sure the full range of benefits of behaviour change reaches as many people as possible and it does it in the most meaningful way. There is scope for marketing to support this initiative, and I think there is a couple of recommendations we could start with:

We cannot address disease prevention challenges with the “one size fits all” approach

Lifestyle and behaviour choices can be motivated by different factors. Many younger and healthy people do not necessarily think about disease prevention. When it comes to healthier lifestyle choices, they might more likely respond to the idea of self-growth, development, or appearance. Those who are more concerned about their health and disease avoidance (see our work on differentiating motivational concerns in relation to health) might be more likely to respond to information highlighting the benefits of healthier lifestyles in relation to the change in the modifiable disease risk factors. 

Educate first, then provide support

Health behaviours are challenging to address and change. We tend to be drawn to things that support instant gratification and make us feel better quickly. That is why it is very easy to reach for processed foods and relax in front of the TV instead of making an effort to cook at home, go to a gym or for a jog. That’s why communication and support efforts should follow a tactical approach guided by some marketing communication approaches. In marketing, we recognise people engage with different behaviours in stages. They need to learn about the need to engage with a behaviour first. It is appropriate to provide behaviour change support AFTER people have the knowledge and understanding of what the behaviour is and what it can require from them. Finally, people should be explained what could happen after they engage in the behaviour. 

Manage expectations

Instant gratification is very difficult to achieve in case of behaviour change. Health outcomes are difficult to get instant feedback on. Therefore, there is a need to identify potential satisfaction outcomes that could be experienced at different levels. Behaviour change strategies should recognise a range of potential psychological, social and behavioural benefits that could potentially be experienced on the journey of behaviour change. Positive feedback on task completion could be one type of feedback. Enabling spending time with friends and family when completing those tasks could be another. There is a range of gamification approaches that enable the provision of some type of positive feedback. Let’s make people recognised and appreciated for all the effort they take. 

Show empathy and compassion

The idea of modifiable risk factors can bring very unpleasant and stigmatising language and terminology. The fact is that obesity is an important risk factor for many diseases. However, we have to be very careful not to make people feel blamed if they actually struggle with weight management and also are at a higher risk of having a certain disease. Empathy is something we should ensure we make the central aspect of behaviour change initiatives and disease prevention. 

So what is your New Year’s resolution?