Recent graduates of health communications and public health programs like to ask me what the differences are between health communications and social marketing. Today, one of these students carefully pointed out that social marketing is the 'backbone' of health communications because it leads communicators to segment their audience, understand them (conduct research) and then focus on behavior change. "All of those things are true," I said, " for any good health communications program."
What the students, and apparently others who are having these debates in classrooms and staff meetings, miss is the marketing mix. As I described my take on the differences with a Coke analogy, they became clear (or so she said anyway). Here it is for you to try on (with apologies to Coke and their agencies).
Health communicators are like the advertising agencies for Coke. Their job is to understand the audience, create engaging and persuasive communication and deliver it in ways that raise awareness of the brand and maybe even increase purchase behaviors. If a person sees a Coke ad and is thirsty, but can't get to a store to buy one, finds no Cokes on the shelves when they get there, sees Pepsis are cheaper and/or really wants a diet Coke - no amount of advertising is going to fix those problems. And no advertising agency would dream of trying to do that.
Social marketers are like the marketing department for Coke. They need to be sure that the product line (behavioral choices) has in it something for every one - not one thing for everyone. They then focus on the distribution system so that anywhere someone is thirsty, a Coke is within an arm's reach of desire [and is why the recent vending machine agreement was a victory for the beverage industry]. Now they focus on the pricing side of the equation, not only deciding what price a thirsty consumer will pay for a Coke, but how much to charge for it relative to the other beverage marketers - not just the other colas, when to have sales, send coupons to people, run contests and in other ways create incentives for people to buy Cokes. And only then do they worry about jingles, furry polar bears in ads and public relations activities.
A big difference that demonstrates itself in so many meetings when as soon as the brain-storming begins, it's all about the 4Ps of posters, pamphlets, PSAs and publicity and not the 4Ps of marketing.