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Over many years public health has developed impressive data-gathering systems related to mortality, morbidity, and health sector utilization. However, we have invested much less time and effort in developing methodologies to generate deep understanding of the wants, fears, needs, motivations, and barriers people face that either enhance or detract from their ability to live healthy lives.

In short, we are fantastic at counting the sick and the dead but much less adept at understanding the living. The fundamental shift from an approach through which solutions are derived principally by public health specialists and policy experts utilizing limited forms of evidence and data towards a more inclusive model that is also influenced by a deep contextual understanding of what target audiences know, believe, value, and say will help them. A more inclusive model supported by a deep understanding of the science, methodologies, and technologies could be applied to develop deliver and evaluate more successful public health programmes.

This fundamental shift includes the coordinated use of all forms of intervention that will help and enable people to adopt and sustain health behaviours to prevent disease, promote wellness, and reduce the impact of both infectious and chronic diseases. Social marketing’s focus on measurable returns on investment and respectful co-production of solutions with citizens is an approach that many governments and public health organizations are trying to bring about. Social marketing (read this freely available chapter) is also attractive to governments and public health organizations because of its emphasis on deep citizen insight and population segmentation, enabling the development of interventions that can respond to a broad diversity of needs of specific subgroups within increasingly diverse communities in many countries.

At a time of declining trust in civic institutions, fragmentation of society, and rising consumerism, social marketing also offers a systematic and systemic approach for tackling many of the key health behavioural challenges faced by societies around the world. Authentic social marketing is not about telling people what to do or coercing them into doing it, but is the process of understanding what will help people make choices and take action that will lead them to healthier lives. In short, those who seek to serve the public and make the world a healthier place have to learn how to make positive life choices the easy and desired choices.

In the coming years, it is highly probable that social marketing will become part of the standard operating systems for governments and all public health organizations, and among for-profit and not-for-profit organizations concerned with promoting health, as advocated by WHO (2012) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (2010). This is because social marketing works, it can be shown to work, and it is a deeply democratic and empowering approach to health promotion and disease reduction. Public health specialists, health promoters and educators, and health policy planners will all need to invest time and effort in developing their understanding of social marketing’s principles so that they can become champions for the communities they serve.

Professor Jeff French is a global thought leader in the fields of behavioural influence, social marketing, and social programme planning and social communication. As well as being a visiting Professor at Brighton University and Fellow at Kings College, University of London, he is a published author, and CEO of Strategic Social Marketing.