ICYMI: Five Questions to Build Your Message

ICYMI (“in case you missed it!”): We dove into the archive of past Free-Range newsletters and found this article from October 2001 about a campaign that demonstrates how answering five questions can help any public interest group craft the most persuasive message.

Baby in a chef hat

Few things seem as instinctive and natural as breastfeeding, and, if a new parent is able to breastfeed, its advantages over formula appear overwhelming. For babies, a parent’s milk can decrease the incidence of allergies, respiratory problems, ear infections, sudden infant death syndrome and diabetes. For those who are nursing their babies, breastfeeding can reduce the risk of breast and uterine cancer, improve bone density, and speed weight-loss after pregnancy. Little wonder, then, that the American Pediatric Association recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life and as part of the diet for at least a full year.

Nevertheless, only about six in ten Americans breastfeed their children immediately after delivery, and by six months that number drops to roughly two in ten. Infant formula, with its promise of greater freedom and flexibility (not to mention corporate marketing muscle), continues to be a powerful competitor, and it now requires millions of dollars to convince new parents to breastfeed. One such campaign, the USDA National Breastfeeding Promotion Project, launched by Best Start Social Marketing, a Tampa-based nonprofit, is noteworthy for two reasons. While the campaign successfully increased breastfeeding rates, it also demonstrates how answering five questions can help you craft the most persuasive message:

1. Who is your target audience?
With a sizable grant from the US Department of Agriculture, Best Start was able to develop a campaign for ten states. The group did not want to waste any dollars, however, talking to people who were already planning to breastfeed. For the targeted areas in which the campaign would run, this meant keeping the focus on at-risk parents and economically-disadvantaged single parents primarily from Latino, Haitian, and Native American communities.

2. What does the target audience believe that supports your objectives?
Focus groups revealed several positive attitudes about breastfeeding upon which a message could be built. Those interviewed were well aware of the health benefits for the parent and child, they enjoyed the physical experience, felt it was an important part of the bonding process with their babies, and also reported that breastfeeding distinguished them from other caregivers. The importance they attached to each of these factors, however, was what mattered most to Best Start. “As we were teasing out the proper way to reach these women,” said Best Start’s Director, Jim Lindenberger, “it became evident that health messages weren’t going to do it. Number one: they already knew it, and number two, that’s not why they were having babies.” The bonding aspects of breastfeeding, in contrast, were emerging as extremely persuasive.

3. What does the target audience believe that creates barriers for your objectives?
Audience research also uncovered attitudes so strongly negative that overcoming them became as important (if not more important) than building on the positive. “It’s like showing your body in public,” said one parent who had already decided against breastfeeding. “The life of a breastfeeder revolves around the baby. You have no life,” said another. There were also numerous complaints about hospitals, friends, and especially family members who made the process more difficult. Among all these “costs” of breastfeeding, lack of support was clearly another major factor.

Photo by RDNE Stock project

4. Where does the target audience get information about your issue?
If you’re going to change the way people think and behave, you have to know where they turn first for information and advice. In Best Start’s focus groups, the answer came back loud and clear: the breastfeeding parent’s own parent was the primary source. Ann Altman, a principal in the advertising agency that developed the campaign’s message, recognized this as another critical piece of the message puzzle. “We saw that the target was incredibly influenced by their mothers, husbands or boyfriends,” Altman said. “The challenge would be to encourage all these people to provide the support necessary for women to breastfeed.”

5. Which spokesperson(s) will the target audience most readily believe?
Even the most finely crafted message may fall flat if it comes out of the wrong mouth. Once again, Best Start turned to focus group participants to learn whom they trusted most. Predictably, parents said they would trust people like themselves: working people from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Consequently, the ads Altman’s team developed prominently featured a rainbow of nursing parents and, of course, their co-starring babies.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

With answers to these five questions in hand, Altman’s agency developed a campaign around the theme, “Loving support makes breastfeeding work.” Posters and brochures in public health centers, carefully selected billboards (like the one pictured), and broadcast ads featured nursing parents bonding with their babies while explicitly encouraging the people around them to support breastfeeding. As the research predicted, the campaign struck a chord. Breastfeeding rates increased in the targeted states and today, according to Lindenberger, “every state in the country uses this program in some form or another.”

Lindenberger is quick to add that communications was only one contributor to an effort that also relied on heavy doses of community, in-hospital programs and other forms of outreach. There can be no doubt, though, that starting with the right message was critically important. So even if someone on your team thinks they have all the answers, take a moment to work through these five questions. It’s one formula even Jim Lindenberger will endorse.