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A social marketing perspective of young adults’ concepts of eating for health: is it a question of morality?

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Authors: Prof Linda Brennan, Dr Karen Klassen, Dr Enqi Weng, Ms Shinyi Chin, Ms Annika Molenaar, Prof Michael Reid, Prof Helen Truby & Dr Tracy A. McCaffrey.

Background: Poor dietary choices are a risk factor for non-communicable diseases. Young adults have low levels of engagement towards their health and may not see the importance in the adoption of healthy eating behaviours at this stage in their lives. Here we utilise social marketing principles, digital ethnography and online conversations to gain insights into young adults’ attitudes and sentiments towards healthy eating.

Methods: Young Australian adults who use social media at least twice a day were recruited by a commercial field house. Using a mixture of methods, combining online polls, forums and conversations, participants (n = 195, 18–24 years old) engaged in facilitated discussions over an extended 4 week period about health and eating-related topics. Data were analysed using thematic analysis constant comparison approach. A post-hoc conceptual framework related to religion was theorised and used as a metaphor to describe the results.

Results: Findings demonstrate that different segments of young adults with varying attitudes and interest towards healthy eating exist. We developed a conceptual framework based on consumer segmentation which adopted religious metaphors as a typology of ‘consumers’. Some young adults practice and believe in the message of healthy eating (saints), whilst some oppose these messages and are not motivated to make any change (sinners), another segment are both aware of and interested in the issues but do not put healthy eating behaviours as a current priority (person in the pew).

Conclusions: Consumer segmentation and social marketing techniques assist health professionals to understand their target audience and tailor specific messages to different segments. Segmentation provides insights on which groups may be most easily influenced to adopt the desired behaviours. The typology presented may be a useful tool for health professionals and social marketers to design strategies to engage young adults in healthy eating, particularly those in the pew who are contemplating a change but lacking the motivation. The utilisation of marketing segmentation in health promotion has the potential to enhance health messaging by tailoring messages to specific segments based on their needs, beliefs and intentions and therefore drive the efficient use of resources towards those most likely to change.