Marketing to the poor

by Anjali Sastry on November 23, 2009

OK, so the title is enough to make you shiver: it smacks of making money off the poor and at least hints at exploitation.  That’s not what we want.

IMG_3325Yet what we have learned, from our admittedly small sample of projects in sub-Saharan Africa, that many clinics, programs, and hospitals operating in conditions of excess need and excess demand do not get the word out to their “markets.”  In one setting in a low-income area of Nairobi, awareness of a clinic’s existence fell off very rapidly with distance from the clinic–within hundreds of meters. In other cases, programs suffered from uneven or low demand. Clearly issues related to the opportunity cost of taking a day off, the challenges of physical travel, and the service and medication costs are all factors affecting access to health care. But so too is knowledge–and here’s where marketing comes in.

Can we draw any lessons from the business school approaches to marketing that could be used in a resource-constrained setting? We examined one case, based on one student team’s experience last year. The situation that the team entered in January 2009 is presented in a traditional teaching case written by the students themselves: Empowering Lives in Kenya: The Chebaiywa Clinic.

Now for the thought-experiment. What could Empowering Lives International-Kenya borrow from our study of marketing? From the sorts of things our MBAs learn in classrooms, summer internships, and on the job?

There may be some object lessons from the field. Consider this reflection on water purification technology reaching a low-income market. What do you make of the author’s arguments?

And post comments to share resources in this area. Here’s one to get you started:  Vachani, Sushil and Smith, N. Craig, Socially Responsible Distribution: Distribution Strategies for Reaching the Bottom of the Pyramid (December 5, 2007). INSEAD Business School Research Paper No. 2008/21/ISIC. Available at SSRN. There’s a dearth of research in this area, and what we can find is often oriented toward consumer products. What about health services and medical products? How to spread the word and generate demand? Is there need to connect what public health experts have learned from vast experience in the field with a business perspective?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Heather May 3, 2011 at 1:57 pm

During our project we experienced similar issues to other clinics in that awareness was seemingly not throughout the township. Our clinics tried to create “launch events” to drive people to the clinics and continuous efforts on delivering flyers. In our research we found that while the events may be somewhat successful at getting people to the clinic, those were not necessarily the people that visited the clinic. Referrals were one of the key drivers according to the clinic staff – including people coming from other townships many miles away. Why was the word not necessarily spreading throughout the township the clinic was meant to serve? We weren’t able to answer that question specifically we did learn that there are very few levers the clinics were able to leverage.

We think of marketing and awareness having multiple channels for companies to use. In this case, according to those we interviewed in the townships, the clinic was limited to work of mouth, passing out flyers door to door and events, which ultimately rely on the same methods to let people know about the event. While the flyers could potentially be beneficial, we found that distribution was limited to as far as the volunteer would walk for the day. There is a strong chance that these flyers about the clinic never made it to all parts of the township.

We came down to some of the traditional aspects of change management – getting stakeholder and champion involvement. We focused on leveraging the community members already involved. For example, getting clinic staff from the township itself, providing incentive mechanisms for referrals, etc. While we wish there was an easier way, it still comes to developing relationships throughout the townships.

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