Some people say there are 4 Ps of marketing, some say there are 5, and others still say there are 7 or even 8. But as far as I know Packaging isn’t on any of the lists. However, just recently the Design Museum announced that its 2013 award for Best Product was going to Kit Yamoyo, an anti-diarrhoea kit containing essential medicines and products that could play an important role in tackling the second biggest cause of death of children in low-income countries every year.
Why a design award? What first inspired the development of the kit was the insight that companies like Coca Cola manage to get their product to the most remote locations. And so the kit was designed by the organisation colalife to fit neatly into the crates that are used to transport Coke bottles. The programme is currently being piloted in Zambia.
And yes, the design looks neat, and innovative (that holy grail of development initiatives) and as a result gets noticed. But the design, and the tie-in with Coke crates, is largely irrelevant to whether this product will end up saving lives or not.
Kit Yamoyo has recently been covered by Wired, and although the headline, “Clever Packaging: Essential Medicine Rides Coke’s Distribution Into Remote Villages”, also emphasises the coolness of the packaging and the transportation, read through to the end and you’ll see that, as it turns out, the real insight in this story is not about packaging or even delivery of products.
Don’t take away the impression that over 2 million infants and children are dying of diarrheal disease every year because until now the medicines to treat them have come in the wrong shaped boxes. Coke itself is not the easiest thing to transport in large volumes. It is heavy, it is bulky, and it is somewhat fragile. The fact that you can find Coke nearly anywhere has little to do with the design of the crates it comes in. In the same way, there’s a reason the chap in the picture is carrying 20 kilos of bananas on his back for 15 miles. He’s not doing it because it is convenient (there are no EU directives on straight bananas in rural Madagascar!), he is doing it because someone wants to buy his bananas. Similarly, if you’ve ever noticed sellers hanging outside nightclubs with cigarettes, chewing-gum and condoms on their trays, it is because people going into and coming out of nightclubs want cigarettes, chewing-gum and condoms. If they didn’t, there would be something else on the trays.
The real insight here is to do with how Coke, and any other manufactured product, go about producing something that will find its way onto shop shelves and into people’s daily lives. It doesn’t matter how nice the distribution system is: if people don’t want to buy the product, shopkeepers aren’t going to buy it in from wholesalers to suck up capital and gather dust on their shelves. And sure enough, the head of colalife, Simon Berry, tells Wired that little if any use has been made by retailers of the design award-winning compatibility of Kit Yamoyo and Coke crates. But regardless of this he is confident that they have created a product that people want, that they can afford, and that generates profit for retailers and wholesalers. In very poor regions affordability may continue to be a problem and in those cases programmes need to find a way of keeping in place the financial incentives that get the product to where it needs to be while making sure that those who need it can get hold of it. This includes being able to afford it. Many programmes are experimenting with ways of getting vouchers to those who need them, so that they can get health products for free or at a subsidised price while maintaining the profit margin that retailers need to stock the product.
The result of colalife’s pilot will hopefully tell us more about how well the product has sold, who has used it, and whether some components of the kit are more useful than others. If the product catches on and people in areas affected by diarrheal disease are willing and able to buy it, then it is good news, whatever the shape of the packaging. More important still will be improvements in access to clean water and sanitation that will reduce the prevalence of disease in the first place.
Another discussion on sales of health products also caught my eye this week: this World Bank blog post about the evidence on different types of incentives used to encourage hair stylists to sell female condoms, coincidentally also in Zambia. I agree with the broad conclusions of the author: that we haven’t got a whole lot of evidence about incentives, and that findings of a study on incentives for one intervention should not be uncritically assumed to be valid for other interventions. But I am even less impressed than he is by the study he is describing. Not the quality of the study but the fact that even the best performing stylists, those who had non-cash rewards, only managed to sell an average 15 packets of female condoms in a whole year – compared to 7 packets a year for those receiving cash rewards. Either way, that’s a pretty low number of female condoms sold – and the study probably tells us more about peoples’ interest in the product than about incentives. Just like Kit Yamoyo: if people don’t want the product, and retailers don’t have a good reason to stock it, it’s probably worth having a re-think.