Marketers don't sell teeth-whitening products because they presume people need them. To the contrary, they're trained to study what people want. Or, more precisely, to dissect what determines their wants - like appearance-consciousness - and let those drivers inform their marketing.
Proctor & Gamble's 3D White Collection was the most successful non-foods new product launch in 2011, clocking in over $151 million in sales to date. While this achievement may not be particularly noble, marketers are clearly doing something right - like figuring out what consumers will respond to, not presuming what we think they should want.
In other words, marketers are demand-driven, masters of a science-like precision to the details of behaviors and their drivers. This is, of course, not new news. But it's nonetheless a tenant that often seems to bypass the development community - especially when it comes to matters of food.
We know that malnutrition is undermining development on a massive scale, from health to education to economic growth. But while P&G is busy making millions, the World Food Programme is busy making a glitzy new fundraising campaign to 'help the hungry billion.' Called A Billion for A Billion, the campaign (see promotional video below) asks us to advocate against hunger and donate money for food subsidies. Never mind that a billion are not, in fact, 'hungry' - malnutrition is much more a problem of food quality than of food quantity. But do the poor necessarily want more food?
A recent study by economists Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Du?o, at MIT's Poverty Action Lab, of 18 countries found that the typical poor household could afford, on average, to spend 30 percent more on food than they actually do - by, say, ceasing expenditures on non-essentials like celebrations. In India, for example, more than 99 percent of extremely poor households are spending money on events like weddings, funerals, and religious festivals. In South Africa, the figure is 90 percent.
Televisions, too, often take precedence over more food. Nearly half of those living under one dollar a day in Nicaragua own one. Forests of aerial antennas are now a ubiquitous feature of today's urban slums. This is not to imply that nutrition isn't a problem; to the contrary, a third of the world remains micronutrient deficient. So how do we reconcile a clear development need - adequate nutrition - with an even clearer consumer reality?
To start, could it be that we're too focused on dictating what the poor should need rather than responding to the drivers of their wants? Instead of fancy (and misleading) fundraising campaigns here in the West to raise more money for more rice bags, what if practitioners more deliberately observed the behaviors of the poor, generated demand and marketed relevant products? And if the poor are choosing televisions over nutrition, then how do we better market nutrient-rich foods?
As Banerjee cleverly suggested in a recent NPR interview, could we bring to market micronutrient-fortified candy? Perhaps then we would see metrics comparable to teeth whitening products. While not quite as audacious as candy, Population Services International (PSI) bucked the industry trend with its marketing of VitalDía in Latin America, a multivitamin supplement. After listening to its consumers, PSI found that low-income women desired products that appeared 'natural' - so it crafted and marketed a brand that communicated natural fruits. At one point in Paraguay, advertising had to be suspended due to overwhelming demand.
More recently, Kenyan social enterprise Insta Products Ltd. has aimed to improve the nutrition of nearly 1 million people while building a Ksh2.1 billion business by commercializing the first fortified porridge packets in urban slums. As an example of listening rather than dictating, assiduous market research found that almost two-thirds of Kenyans purchase their groceries at informal kiosks - and that those kiosks are the most important influencers of the poor's purchasing decisions. So that's where the enterprise is going.
Our hazardous assumption that the poor must be starving and are without choices has hampered the imperative for careful market research into the very human decisions that the poor make every day, such as opting for televisions over more food. Just like P&G relentlessly probes the attitudes of its consumers, cultivates demand and walks away with record profits, so too could development practitioners approach malnutrition with a similar dexterity.
But the WFP's A Billion for a Billion campaign should alert us to something more elemental in contemporary development thinking besides the fault of dictating to consumers. It conceptualizes the poor as an abstraction: they're the 'hungry billion' rather than varied individuals who make typically human choices. (Perhaps similar to the ones we make, like purchasing millions in teeth whiteners.) Marketing should help us to understand and respond to the real behaviors of consumers, treating the poor as a little less hungry and little more human.
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