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The People, The Planet, The Can – The social marketing and re-branding of breastmilk

[Editor’s note: This blog is part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideasAnna Coutsoudis, established the first community-based breastmilk bank in South Africa www.ithembalethu.org.za and is a founding member of HMBASA (Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa) www.hmbasa.org.za which she currently chairs. Shannon Kenny and Patrick Kenny and independent communication consultants; creative directors, Mixed Media, Durban. It was written by the authors. You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book]

South Africa is one of the countries with an ever-increasing infant mortality rate. In fact it is one of the few countries where this has happened. Coutsoudis, Coovadia and King cited in The Lancet that research has shown how infant mortality is on the rise because of the increase in Formula Feeding. Breastfeeding decreases the risk of infant mortality. Unfortunately, formula feeding is increasing despite the fact that breastmilk is scientifically proven to be immeasurably better.

Unfortunately, breatmilk/breastfeeding do not have the advantage of better marketing and advertising. One solution to this problem is the re-branding of breastmilk/breastfeeding.

“The People, The Planet, The Can” started life in 2011 as a multi-media communication strategy for effective breastmilk marketing that recognises the need to involve all of society (not just women and expectant mothers) and seeks to convince them of the facts by addressing their aspirations to ultimately affect and effect a cultural change.

The chapter we propose for this book is a critical analysis of our relationship as a researcher/communicator team within the framework of this policy issue. We will address how and why this relationship came about; our strengths and how these have been built upon; our limitations and how these have been overcome/compensated for or steps being taken to do so; etc.

We also hope to explore the relationship between policy makers and their funding partners (aid agencies, foundations, the private sector and business) and the roles of these funding partners as de facto policy-makers and the manner in which policy has traditionally been communicated to the broader public via the media and information or education campaigns, for example.

As a researcher/communicator team, we are of the belief that at the heart of the challenge to effectively communicate complex research ideas to policy-makers should lie a clear communication strategy that includes the knowledge that these ideas/findings ultimately will need to be communicated to civil society.

Based on our experience, we would like to put forward the case for more and better researcher/communicator partnerships around policy issues. While our relationship has been a healthy, long-term one, so to speak, we cannot claim to be experts in this arena but merely ‘experienced’ at conducting just such a relationship.

From experience we have learned that:

  • Constant critical evaluation and review of communication methods is necessary. Critical evaluation will involve admitting that ‘we got it wrong’ or ‘we could do it better/differently’ when presented with evidence.
  • Communication is a process and there has to be a recognition that no strategy, method or medium will be appropriate for every context.
  • Sometimes, ‘getting it right’ will require taking an opposite view or looking at the successes of one’s detractors.
  • There has to be a long-term commitment to creating and refining communication methods.
  • Policy-makers are as much a part of society as any other member of civil society and are therefore influenced by prevailing cultural norms, advertising and promotional material.Therefore, when communicating ideas to policy-makers that conflict with a prevailing cultural norm, researchers and communicators need to take into account that the facts accompanied by a strong emotional argument will be more persuasive than mere facts.
  • Formulation of a communication strategy may require partnerships with individuals or organisations who have resources in the form of skills and/or funds of which the team has little or no in offer.

Most importantly, what and how we communicate ultimately affects the lives of people – individuals, families, communities, nations -and in our specific case, is very much a matter of life and death.

The research process to test these lessons will include, where possible, interviews with and drawing comments from policy-makers and their funding partners and supporters; individuals and organisations with whom we have partnered as well as those opposed to current policy; the media (press and broadcast media); members of the broader HMBASA (Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa) team and members of various sectors of the diverse South African public.

If you have any comments or questions for the authors please add them below. 

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book

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