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Joi Sears headshot

Cause Marketing: The Success of Michelle Obama’s Drink Up Campaign

Words by Joi Sears

The key to social marketing is to get people to change their behavior. A successful campaign is clever, has a measurable social impact and, most of all, gets people to think or act differently.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with all sorts of messages, it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of a campaign. Are our advertisements being seen? Is our campaign impactful? New consumer tracking techniques are being developed that help us get a little closer to answering these questions.

The Drink Up campaign

Drink Up is a public health campaign that is a part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood-obesity initiative. It is different from the ordinary PSA. Instead of telling people what not to do, it adopted fun, positive messaging that encourages people to drink more water. The campaign featured two public service announcements seen 700 million times over a 15-week period throughout the U.S. — in 15,000 stores, doctors’ offices, gas stations, malls and other highly-trafficked places. Organizers also developed a wide-reaching online ad campaign which featured historic images of Muhammad Ali and Albert Einstein. They even installed talking water fountains in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. The primary purpose of the campaign is to curb obesity by promoting water as the drink of choice.

The campaign is powered by Partnership for a Healthier America, an independent group founded in 2010 in conjunction with Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign. It works with businesses to change how they sell products and shift consumer behavior toward healthier choices. The group launched Drink Up in an effort to convince people to drink more water, any water — whether bottled, tap or filtered — especially in lieu of sugary drinks that contribute to weight gain and diabetes risk.

The result

According to new data from Nielsen Catalina Solutions, a third-party marketing agency, the Drink Up Campaign could actually be effective in nudging people to drink more water. The company reports that the campaign delivers a 4 percent increase in bottled water sales among viewers of the ads. This equates to not only hydration, but also over $1 million in retail bottled water sales.

To measure the effectiveness of the campaign, NCS focused on the purchasing habits of households that were exposed to Drink Up ads during a 13-week period. Researchers found a lift in bottled water and water filter purchases among households that were exposed to the ads. This was in comparison with purchases from a control group of households that did not see the advertising.

In a second study, NCS determined two groups that seemed to respond more favorably to the campaign, “Well Beings” and “Fence Sitters." The Well Beings, or people already striving to live a healthy lifestyle, were more responsive -- driving more than 51 percent of the incremental retail sales. They generated $143 in sales for every 1,000 ad impressions served. Comparatively, the Fence Sitters, or people who often think about getting healthy but need a little inspiration, contributed 14 percent of the sales volume and generated $16 in sales for every 1,000 impressions.

The feedback

According to an article published by Forbes, the obesity reduction initiative didn’t go down so smoothly. Bottled water may be good for people’s health, but it is terrible for environment. The campaign, which partnered with beverage giants like Nestlé, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, is under attack by many environmental activists.

In an article titled, Why Activists Shouldn’t Be Hosing the First Lady’s ‘Drink Up’ Campaign, Hank Cardello argues that it doesn’t matter whether the goal is clean and freely available drinking water, healthier beverage choices, or less plastic in landfills. These are all worthy aspirations, but they lose sight of the bigger picture.

“Regardless of their agenda, it’s safe to say that everybody supports efforts to curb childhood obesity. Trashing the beverage industry — which can mobilize its considerable product development and advertising resources (nearly $1 billion in advertising spent last year by Coke, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper alone) on behalf of water — will not move the needle one bit in solving the problem," Cardello wrote.

"In fact, excluding the beverage industry from the water business will only worsen obesity, because of the value that bottled water provides: clean water available in so many more locations than there are public water fountains, and ready for transport. If nudging kids (and their parents) to drink more water is the goal, then water has to be highly accessible, wherever people get thirsty."

Cardello believes that the Drink Up campaign is a template for how advocates and industries can engage with each other to tackle social and public health problems.

“I believe the campaign is a model for every industry, for one simple reason: It’s working," Cardello wrote. "Its success to date should show anti-industry activists that working with businesses that are tied to a social issue can be far more powerful than attacking them — if (and only if) the industry can be shown that there are profits in doing the socially responsible thing. Companies will gladly lend their considerable marketing and distribution channels to social causes when they are also good for business.”

Image credits: 1) Drink Up Campaign 2) & 3) Nielsen Catalina Solutions

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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