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Can social marketing be a path towards improved nutrition?

The Tata-Cornell Institute (TCI) has been running an iron
flour fortification program
in a tribal community in Gujarat. It uses the
principles of social marketing to generate awareness about the importance of
iron and other micronutrients, and consequentially aims to drive demand for the
fortificant branded as “Sfurti”. The eventual goal is to understand if in such
a setting it is possible to have a sustained model, incorporating micronutrient
powder into a family’s regular diet, thereby supplementing for the lack of
important micronutrients in the typical diet.

We have examined some
of the challenges
with getting a program like this off the ground. We’ve also
surveyed household consumers to understand what
drives purchasing behavior
(e.g., the demand side).  Most recently, our analysis has focused on
the experience of our sellers (e.g., the supply side), namely door-to-door
saleswomen as well as point-of-sale millers.


A miller adding micronutrient powder to grain before milling process complete. (Note: image indicative of process, though not taken in Gujarat field sites.) (Photo credit: Jessica Ames)

During Phase I (June ’16 – March ’17), the Sfurti program
trained and employed 30 women from the local Women’s Self-Help Groups (organized
by TCI’s partner organization BAIF Development Research
) to pitch Sfurti to the households by travelling door-to-door. Known as Sfurti Bens, we spoke to each of
these women about their experiences marketing and supplying Sfurti to their
respective communities.  The feedback was
largely homogenous. While most of them initially faced difficulties in pitching
the product to people, with increasing outreach programs and positive
reinforcement from the existing consumers, convincing non-consumers became
easier. This outcome, though straightforward, is quite important in
understanding the efficiency of social marketing. Since these villages are close-knit,
social networks are often used for the spread of any new information or product.
Being a part of these social networks, the Sfurti Bens became the first
adopters and once they convinced a few more people to try Sfurti, the newly
adopted consumers became agents of propagation. One can simply think about YouTube
sensations and how easily information is disseminated on digital social networks such as Facebook to understand how this
phenomenon works in these village settings.  

Additionally, the Sfurti Bens have to spend much less time
in going door-to-door, because of the decreasing frequency of pitches they have
to make, a consequence of the increased awareness due to the word of mouth from
existing consumers. The survey revealed that most Sfurti Bens spend just about
15-16 hours a month to visit their designated households. This time, as per
them, can easily be accommodated between farm or dairy work (which most of them
are involved in) and dinner preparations. This is to say that making sales is
not too much additional work for the Sfurti Bens and it makes the program

However, to test if a program like this can be absolutely
sustainable (e.g., that it is integrated within the day-to-day of the local
community and doesn’t need any outside support), the role of Sfurti Bens must eventually be
negligible. Sales should be motivated by demand in, what marketers call, a
‘pull’ manner as opposed to a ‘push’ manner
(people buying it themselves versus
it being sold to them through a pitch). To test this, we launched Phase – 2 of
the program in September 2017. In this phase, we experimented with selling
Sfurti powder at the point of milling.  In
5 out of the 15 target villages, we employed the local millers, but in the
remaining 10 villages, we continued sales through the Sfurti Bens.

We conducted a survey of the supply partners – Sfurti Bens and millers – in January
2018. We wanted to understand what problems they face while conducting the
sales as well as what they think of the program as a whole. A general
understanding amongst the Sfurti Bens was that while the program has made households
much more open to the idea of purchasing, most still need to be driven to
purchase. Even the millers in interviews agreed that while the point of sales
was shifted to them, Sfurti Bens would need to check up on households which
were either buying irregularly or were not buying at all.


Sfurti Bens demonstrating how to mix the micronutrient powder into flour. (Photo credit: Karuna P Salve)

Moreover, the millers feel it is difficult for them to be
able to sell the powder because of two reasons. First, most households do not
interact with the miller. The process is simple: people leave their grains at
the mill and later in the evening collect the flour and pay the miller, giving
no opportunity to the miller to take consent for adding the powder. Second, the
millers either by lack of knowledge about the powder or due to time constraints
are not able to pitch the powder to the households. In their opinion, unless it
is pitched to the households (by Sfurti Bens or someone else), they wouldn’t be
able to sell it. The second reason corroborates what the Sfurti Bens feel: the
households need to be driven to purchase. However, the point of Phase – 2 was
to precisely test this question: after an intensive campaign, would people start
buying the powder on their own?

So far, sales have dropped in Phase – 2, in all the villages,
but more so in the villages where millers are being used. The drop in all 15
villages seems to be a result of a 5 month gap in the program (April ’17 –
August ‘17). A few of the regular consumers have now stopped consuming because
the gap in supply led to a reversal in the benefits that they derived from
consuming Sfurti – less fatigue, better appetite, etc. The reversal of the
benefits, according to Sfurti Bens,
gives people an impression that because of stopping consumption they are now
worse off than they were before the program was initiated. A minority of the
people who had just started consumption, and were yet to see its impact, now
consider the Sfurti program as a non-serious initiative, hence, it may take a
few more months to regain their trust and motivate them to consume. Although
this unintended gap was an outcome of some bureaucratic problems faced by the
team, the hiccups we now face are a key learning for us. The perceptions people
have built by a discontinuity highlight the importance of time lag effects in
such a program. Despite 10 months of awareness generation, a 5 month gap not
only undid past learning, it also led to creating negative perceptions.
However, we are slowly picking up and once data from more recent months come in,
we will be able to analyze how big or long-lasting the time-gap effect has been.

Finally, having initiated Phase – 2 and completing
interviews with the Sfurti Bens,
we are now in a position to combine our sales trends with household level data
and adjust for differences in selling approach (door-to-door versus point-of-sale)
to separate all the different effects at the intervention level, village level,
and household level. This would eventually lead us to answer our research
question: What makes people buy such products in a social marketing setting and
whether or not such a program can be made sustainable? In other words, once we
(the TCI team) leave, can this program sustain itself on its own?

By Prankur Gupta

Prankur Gupta is a Master’s of Science student in Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics in Management.  His research with the Tata-Cornell Institute (TCI) focuses on consumer behaviors in rural Gujarat.