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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Handwashing Expert Myriam Sidibe Calls for 'Public Health Marketing' to Beat COVID-19

By Mary Mazzoni
marketing for public health handwashing coronavirus COVID-19

Myriam Sidibe spent more than a dozen years at Unilever, where she led the Lifebuoy brand's renowned global handwashing campaign. Engaging Lifebuoy, U.N. organizations and NGOs, and competitors like Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, the campaign helped more than 1 billion people around the world improve their handwashing habits. 

Called "the biggest hygiene behavior change program in the world," the campaign was also a driving force behind the creation of Global Handwashing Day, which raises awareness of handwashing to prevent disease. This work has already changed countless communities for the better, but perhaps it's never been more important than it is today. "Coronavirus is now bringing us global handwashing year," Sidibe told TriplePundit by phone from her home in Kenya. 

Now on sabbatical from Unilever and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Sidibe is exploring a new discipline she calls "marketing for public health," which is meant to "infuse marketing with value" and "bridge the divide between what companies say and what companies do." 

Detailed in her new book, "Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth through Purpose,” this new realm of purpose-driven marketing is key to how companies can best respond to COVID-19, Sidibe says. "When you look at the reach of these manufacturers and the overall private sector, they’re sitting on grand resources and abilities to communicate to the public about how they can comply with what is required today, in a way that’s less scary and more influential," she told TriplePundit. 

Marketing for public health: Re-tooling companies' best assets to respond to COVID-19

Sidibe further details her vision for purpose-driven marketing in an article published in Harvard Business Review last week, where she provides a five-step framework for brands to connect their purpose to their operations and drive impact. These range from winning internal support among leadership to the difficult exercise of measuring an initiative's effects on public health and wellbeing. When it comes to COVID-19, she outlined three key action items for business leaders during her interview with 3p. 

Engage in responsible marketing. The traditional tools of marketers — including market research, product innovation, communications and incentives — can be leveraged for behavior change and improving public health, Sidibe wrote in HBR. "Brands have huge marketing budgets, and they are talking to the population," she told 3p. "The way I see this is that the private sector has a huge role in terms of incentivizing self-isolation and quarantine, handwashing with soap, and hygiene." 

This role breaks down into two levels. "The first is access to essential hygiene products like soaps, sanitizers, masks and testing kits. The second is enabling people to use these products," she explained. "It's not just about distributing the soap. It's about making sure you come up with messaging that is dynamic, that changes and that enables a social norm around handwashing with soap. All of that is absolutely critical to make a real dent in stopping the crisis."

Join multi-stakeholder coalitions. To maximize impact on a global crisis like COVID-19, Sidibe advises brands to "join coalitions where they can bring their resources — not only cash, but also human resources and creativity — to the forefront of the conversation."

There are no shortage of options on this front. To name just two examples: Sidibe is working with former Unilever CEO Paul Polman and the coalition Business Fights Poverty on a campaign to accelerate local action and global best practice sharing across businesses as they seek to respond to COVID-19. Her book is also connected to a global movement, also called Brands on a Mission, to generate a collective US$1 billion investment in sustainable business models that address health and well-being.

Keep business continuity and resilience. Of course, every responsible business leader wants to leverage his or her resources to save lives and livelihoods amid the COVID-19 crisis, but maintaining their own operations is also important, Sidibe says.

"Obviously it doesn’t serve anybody if the community is collapsing. A lot of these businesses and companies are our employers as well as motivators," she told 3p. "In a moment like this, you can't just be thinking about your own business because you don't operate single-handedly. Yet we do have to keep business resilience and business continuity in mind, because we need them to keep bringing the goods to the public."

A focus on the most vulnerable is key to beating COVID-19

From her home base in Kenya, Sidibe has a unique vantage point from which to view the COVID-19 crisis. More than 27,000 coronavirus cases have already been identified in Africa, and it's spreading quickly. The World Health Organization warns the number of cases on the continent could surpass 10 million within six months

"We cannot wait until the number of cases grows, because there is absolutely no way that our health infrastructure would be able to pick that up," Sidibe told us. Although Kenya is in a better position, some less developed countries on the continent have less than 50 ICU beds each, Sidibe says, putting their healthcare systems at grave risk of becoming overwhelmed. "At the core of the response has to be prevention and communication to enable these prevention mechanisms so we can contain this as much as possible." 

But in densely populated environments where people work to eat each day, this is easier said than done. "The most vulnerable will be those who are not able to practice [social distancing] behaviors because of crowding," Sidibe explained. "You may have 12 people living in a single room. You don’t have a private toilet or private handwashing facilities. You have to share." 

Further, "it’s very nice to tell people to stay home, but the reality is a lot of the economy is still driven by the informal sector. What people sell today is what feeds their families," she said. "So, prevention and livelihoods have to be absolutely synergized. You cannot talk about prevention without talking about livelihoods."

To best respond in the vulnerable communities where it matters most, brands can take initiative to distribute soap, sanitizer and masks, set up public handwashing stations, provide resources to frontline healthcare workers, and — perhaps most importantly — use their marketing resources to educate the public about how to keep themselves safe, Sidibe says. 

"You need both the consumerism as well as the messages and the trust within communities," she told us. "If you combine market access as well as a community presence, together you can really get to a real impact."

On this front, she's also spearheading the National Business Compact on COVID-19, a national business coalition campaign in Kenya. "There is no way we can solve this crisis unless we solve for the most vulnerable," she said firmly, "otherwise the virus will always be here and therefore we will never be safe."

The bottom line: Now, more than ever, social impact is key to brand survival 

In the age of COVID-19, brands not only have a moral responsibility to keep their stakeholders safe, but also a business imperative to act swiftly and meaningfully. "We’re in a moment of crisis, and the businesses and brands that do not think beyond their consumers to the communities and environments in which they operate will not be regarded very well," Sidibe says. 

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to a corporate response, she concluded. But now, more than ever, companies have to be sure they do something. "Brands can do all sorts of things," she advised. "They can obviously make sure that we have the products available, but also they can also make sure the right behaviors are encouraged by mainstream media and mainstream marketing in ways which support the population, because this is a hard moment for everyone." 

Image credit: Gallery DS/Unsplash

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni