The author of the letter An oddly timed aside in debate over formula in yesterday’s Boston Globe may know about breast feeding, but has an incomplete grasp of marketing. She writes about the recent decision to allow formula maker-sponsored goodie bags for new moms to return to Massachusetts hospitals. (I’ve posted on the topic here and here.)
Although it’s not completely clear from the letter, the author seems to be saying that moms can make the choice of whether to breast or bottle feed and are not unduly swayed to bottle feed by the formula makers. (Not sure I agree with that.) Instead she asks us to consider the motives of the formula makers as they compete against one another.
Imagine no one breast-fed. Formula manufacturers would still want to give out free gift packs, because when women take their brand home from the hospital, this appears as hospital endorsement, and they are likely to keep using that product instead of another. Are we so naive that we cannot spot this strategy? Does anyone really think the formula companies are doing this to be nice to people?
Boston Medical Center serves low-income families with pride, and we have not given out these free bags to our new families for almost a decade. Why? Because it is not the hospital’s job to help market formula. We market health.
Let’s examine this a bit:
- Yes, the formula makers like the implicit hospital endorsement. But a more powerful hook is that once baby is used to a specific brand, there is a strong tendency to continue on it. If baby seems to like whatever brand of formula that’s used in the hospital, why risk changing it upon discharge?
- The same sort of argument works for other products, like diapers and creams. If the parents get used to Pampers, why switch to Huggies?
- Boston Medical Center has taken one approach –which is to remove itself from the marketing game completely. Nothing wrong with that. But there are other ways to deal with the situation. If one formula manufacturer is actually better than another, the hospital could say so and provide bags only from that company. If the products from different manufacturers are essentially equivalent (which is my impression) then why not let the companies compete for the rights to sponsor the bags and extract a better deal for the hospital or its patients? This could be done by insisting on more free product, bigger coupons, additional goodies, or cash to the hospital. It’s the same concept as naming rights for stadiums, and the money could be big if this marketing tactic is really as effective as the letter writer seems to fear.