Public Health England's Sheila Mitchell on sugar, 'This Girl Can' and innovative government ads

Contrary to most of the UK, January is a good month for Public Health England, marking a spate of new campaigns persuading people to cut sugar, smoking and alcohol.

Public Health England: marketing director Sheila Mitchell
Public Health England: marketing director Sheila Mitchell

Change4Life's 'Sugar smart' campaign has received the most budget and focus, with an app that tells parents how many sugar cubes feature in a product.

There’s also the annual anti-tobacco push to follow on from Stoptober, and a Dry January campaign.

Public Health England’s (PHE) marketing director Sheila Mitchell discusses the importance of creating "calendar moments", the success of Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’, and innovation in government advertising.

Which of the three campaigns is most important?

Sugar is getting more spend because of the whole obesity [debate]. Sugar has £5m behind it, smoking got £1.5m, because we spent budget doing Stoptober earlier in the [financial] year. Dry January is social and PR, so we’re just trying to get a low level of noise.

This is the first year there’s been a sugar app. Where did that come from?

What we haven’t done is put our [sugar tax] report in consumer terms for mums. This is an educative campaign telling mums how much sugar there is in stuff, and how many sugar cubes there are in fizzy drinks and yoghurt. It’s the unexpected side of sugar.

We found when doing focus groups, when we were revealing sugar cubes as part of the campaign development, our mums really sprung up and said that was really useful information. We thought there must be a way we could do this in app form. It’s taken some time to develop the idea and ensure most key products get into the database.

Why isn’t Coca-Cola involved in this year’s sugar campaign, unlike last year?

Everyone is waiting for the obesity strategy to come out, which will come out in 2016. It’s easier for retailers to get behind promotional activity for us. But also, we have an e-CRM programme where we will offer people product vouchers, so we have the New York Bakery Co and Weetabix. There are still [FMCG] brands involved.

Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ was one of 2015’s most successful campaigns. Has government advertising become more pioneering than brand advertising?

I think ‘This Girl Can’ was great. I had lots of conversations with [Sport England], trying to get them to do ‘This Little Girl Can’, but they weren’t ready for it. 

With government advertising, you have to be so evidence-based, but once you get your evidence and rigour right then you have relative freedom about how to engage with public.

A lot of what we do is not government branded. We use NHS when we’re being authoritative about serious signs of cancer or flu, but if you look over the past few years, initiatives like Stoptober were about creating an event.  What we do is different to commercial, we are trying to change behaviours on a sustained basis rather than achieve hard sales. Maybe that behaviour change model frees you up to do more. 

What trends are you watching for 2016?

Like everybody else, we’re looking at what is tech allowing us to do. It seems to change every week so it’s hard to keep up. We rely heavily on [agencies] MEC and Carat to keep us up to speed.

There’s programmatic, and how much we invest in a data marketing platform, and in customer data and information. That’s absolutely at the centre. How do we meaningfully create content, how can we be always-on? Everyone’s struggling with what this means.

The other side is that because we sit in government, we have access to unique channels. How do we work more with schools, and with healthcare professionals?  How do we use our unique channels in the health sector and government, how does marketing help and support them to do their job?

Will we see more apps from PHE?

We need to be clear about what we build ourselves, and when we curate from others. We’re just feeling our way in that - the market provides some fantastic apps. Could we clinically endorse them? If you stick the NHS brand on something, it must be robust and rigorous. We’re absolutely committed to digital tools.

PHE is launching an ‘adult-to-adult’ health service later this year. Can you tell us more?

That will be targeting 40-60-year-olds. If you look at our marketing investment over the last few years, there hasn’t been much money going to that demographic, except for smoking. There’s a whole body of research saying that it’s never too late if you can make fundamental changes.

It’s about reawakening people to health, and [breaking] deeply entrenched habits. We have found a way into all of that with a new brand and a new voice in that space. It’s about positive health lifestyle changes, and recognising this is the generation pulled into looking after younger families and elderly parents. 

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