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Smokey Bear Turns 70; Gets Us Fired Up About Public Health Branding

featured / health research / public health / behavioral research / advertising research / blog

Happy (early) birthday to an American icon! Smokey Bear was created on August 9, 1944 through a partnership between the Ad Council, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Association of State Foresters. Though his tagline has evolved a bit from the original “Smokey says, Care will prevent 9 out 10 forest fires,” the underlying call to action has remained constant – and Smokey’s message is still going strong in what is the longest running public service campaign in U.S. history.

His now recognizable catch phrase – “Only you can prevent forest fires” – speaks to a common tactic in this sort of campaign. Get people to believe individual action is important and impactful. Like the many other preventable health and environmental risks we face on a daily basis, fire prevention has had to compete for consumer attention and motivation. So why has Smokey been so successful?

Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, thinks the campaign has endured the test of time because of Smokey's consistent presence. Meanwhile, other public service ad campaigns have switched up their symbols and characters.(1)

It seems Smokey’s consistency has paid off. According to Ad Council tracking surveys, an impressive 96 percent of the U.S. adult population recognizes Smokey Bear, and 70 percent is able to recall Smokey’s tagline without any prompting.(2) In other words, he’s a branded character – not entirely common in the public health space.

Though Smokey has been around for some time, the idea of strategically branding public health initiatives is relatively new. We often write about social marketing and what public health can (and should) borrow from marketers, and you should add branding to that list.

Public health brands work just like commercial brands. By promoting healthy behaviors, public health brands compete with, and take “market share” away from, less healthy alternatives.(3) Branding is particularly important for public health causes for a couple of big reasons: public health initiatives typically seek to influence sustained lifestyle changes that can be much more difficult to impact than product choices, and the less healthy alternatives with which public health initiatives compete are often promoted by commercial giants who are certainly skilled at leveraging branding techniques to influence preferences and behavior.

What then should you keep in mind as you design your next behavior change effort? For starters:

  1. Public health brands should be grounded in behavioral theory. More on choosing theories on another day.
  2. In line with social marketing’s audience-centric approach, public health brands should seek to change specific beliefs and attitudes that are drivers of your audience’s behaviors (as identified through formative research).
  3. Similarly, public health brands should be based on detailed insights into perceived benefits and costs, compared to those of competing behaviors, your audience identifies as meaningful to them (research, for the win).
  4. A brand is about the feelings and emotional connections your audience ties to a particular behavior. These connections take time to build. A logo (for example) reminds people of those feelings (also testable!) – if the product was branded carefully – but simply having a logo doesn’t create a brand.

Whether you stop by Smokey’s party this afternoon for a birthday bear hug (1-3pm @ at the Whitten Building in D.C.), send a card (Smokey has his own zip code to receive fan mail, and, rumor has it, he even writes back), tweet him using #SmokeyBearHug (Smokey is remarkably hip for his age), or pick up a book on branding in public health, take some time to commemorate his legacy with us today!


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