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Back to Archives | Back to July 2005 Contents 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-
Branding Traffic Safety

By Susan Gorcowski, Associate Administrator, Office of Communications and Consumer Information, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C.

he power of product branding and marketing on American's consumer spending and behavior is undeniable. When done right, private sector marketing can influence someone to spend thousands of dollars more on a car, buy a $5 dollar cup of coffee and influence people to buy a specific brand. Similarly, traffic safety marketing, when done right, can persuade high-risk automobile drivers to wear their safety belt or to designate a sober driver when drinking alcohol.

Moving Beyond Traditional Efforts
Many traffic safety programs focus primarily on general public information and education campaigns to prevent motor vehicle crashes. Typically, these traditional campaigns rely on press events, posters, public service announcements, bumper stickers and press releases to educate a large general audience about highway safety and the dangers of not wearing a seat belt or driving while alcohol-impaired. Although raising awareness is a traditional and vital part of any campaign, it is only one element of a successful communications effort. Many impaired driving prevention campaigns do a good job of educating people about why impaired driving is dangerous but fail to achieve the most crucial step - reaching the targeted audience and getting people to actually perform the action of designating a sober driver, taking a cab, or drinking responsibly.

The primary goal of any social campaign focused on prevention and achieving long-term success is influencing change in behavior and creating positive social norms to sustain the behavior.

Branding: The Power of One Voice
To effectively influence an audience, the first step is to reach them and make sure the message sticks with them. This requires consistent message reinforcement at the national, state, and local level. Nationally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has promoted the Click It or Ticket and You Drink & Drive You Lose campaigns. Although these programs have been around for several years, from a branding perceptive, NHTSA is just beginning to create nationally enough identity for these traffic enforcement campaigns to influence behavior. NHTSA is currently sponsoring a national Click It or Ticket mobilization in May and a national You Drink & Drive. You lose crackdown in August and September of every year. The primary objectives of the nationwide campaigns are to help state and local departments and their partners to leverage the power of national branding efforts to support the local effort in their communities.

Internal branding with the local officers is also important. In order to be successful, officers must believe in the enforcement campaigns and actively participate. Although the campaigns are focused during an annual period, daily attention to seat belt and driving while under the influence of alcohol laws are important reinforcement to the community and to the officers. It's understandable that officers and departments that have worked with the same programs for the past few years might be growing tired of the programs, but it is critical to continue to stay with the current message. In highway safety, this is more important now than ever, since record achievements in traffic safety are being realized. Remember, while the officers are working with the program often, most citizens are just becoming cognizant of the message's impact and program for the first time.

Learning from Corporate America
Branding campaigns are successful when they follow the basic rules developed by the corporate giants to increase exposure of their messages.

Start with Demographic and Market Research: Corporate America doesn't create or buy advertising time without first looking at market research to determine exactly who they are trying to reach. Rarely will a marketer talk about general audiences. Rather, marketing experts want to ensure the best return on their investment and will focus their efforts to create a relevant message for the appropriate audience's existing environment. For example, research shows that men buy the most beer and are more likely to watch sports on television; that's why so much beer advertising appears during television sports programming.

Likewise, local departments can start developing a local demographic profile by analyzing their community's traffic and enforcement data. Then take the community's high-risk demographic (usually men ages 18-34) and determine where they live, play, and work and what they read, listen to, and watch. Agencies could consider using information from market research firms like Claritas, Simmons, Arbitron, and Neilsen services to find out the everyday activities of this group.

Brand Recognition: People recognize, understand, and react to messages from established brands faster than they recognize messages from less-established brands. The national brands developed by NHTSA, Click It or Ticket and You Drink & Drive You Lose., focus on the national highway safety priorities. The national campaigns and local efforts support each other. This initiative achieves real brand equity over time, and it works faster and more efficiently to influence people.

Brand Credibility: High-visibility enforcement is crucial to improving traffic safety. Consumers see the high-visibility enforcement and know that the advertising campaign is no empty threat. Without visible local enforcement, the brand will lose its credibility. And NHTSA's research shows that men ages 18-34 are more concerned about paying fines than losing their lives.

Brand Recall and Response: Given today's message-cluttered world, it is important to craft messages that are relevant, that stick in the memory, and that influence the target audience. The message has to be conveyed clearly and quickly. If there's no connection, there's no action.

National and Grassroots Promotion: Ultimately, branding is developing a relationship with a specific audience and providing a relevant and credible benefit. National advertising campaigns and related marketing efforts reinforce local activities by providing greater credibility and recognition to the message.

Finding the Sweet Spot
Traffic laws are enforced ever day, but it's difficult to market high-visibility enforcement daily and still be credible and keep the message fresh with a media-savvy audience like 18- to 34-year-old males. Doing too much advertising and not enough enforcement is like crying wolf - eventually, the audience will stop paying attention. Yet conducting enforcement without enough publicity diminishes opportunities to reach the audience and change their behavior. Finding the sweet spot is crucial to influencing behavior change but varies depending on audiences and markets. That's why it's crucial to use market research and to continually evaluate campaign efforts.

Creating a Year-Round Campaign
Many localities have found that using a mix of enforcement and social norming campaigns helps to extend the core messages throughout the year. Using nationally recognized nonenforcement brands like Buckle Up America and Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk provides opportunities to extend the core message while not oversaturating the use of a strong enforcement message. It also allows for marketing alliances with the purveyors of the sports and entertainment that the target audience consumes but that might otherwise not be comfortable promoting a strong enforcement message to their customers. The appropriate mix depends on the market and the development of a marketing plan and calendar to ensure there are valleys in the coverage so that peaks are created for the primary campaigns that should be focused on what works best: high-visibility enforcement. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 7, July 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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