Marketing Strategies Get Results in Safety Education

Marketing Strategies Get Results in Safety Education


Ferbie poses with youthful admirers at a fire prevention education session.

Fire Prevention in Action

Fire Fighters have done commendable work over the years nurturing their fire prevention foster child. But today, there is much more to public fire safety education than taking a reserve engine to an elementary school and squirting water to the squeals of third-graders.

A department can conduct safety education without installing a Ph.D. at every fire station, but professional educators and a dedicated staff trained as educators are necessary if a department is to develop and deliver school, neighborhood, and media programs. Also, educator staffs should include individuals with marketing and advertising skills so fire educators will know how to reach large, diverse audiences with their fire prevention and survival messages.

Public fire safety education is a systematic attempt to disseminate information on various aspects of fire prevention and survival. Through behavior-oriented instruction, public fire educators persuade people to buy smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, as well as to move gasoline outside, smother pan fires with a lid, and so forth. Fire educators do not simply deliver speeches, they teach. They require their audiences to demonstrate what they have learned by taking tests, practicing procedures, drawing diagrams, or doing whatever else is required to better ensure that the behaviors taught are remembered and followed during an emergency.

Goodwill and education

Sometimes, however, fire department public relations is mistakenly confused with education. Public relations includes the distribution of trinkets, such as rulers, pencils, key chains, and even bumper stickers, which bear the name of the fire department. Such promotional items teach nothing and modify no behaviors. These attempts at goodwill may accomplish a great deal for a department trying to build its image, but they do not affect the public’s ability to prevent or survive a fire.

Distinguishing between the overlapping disciplines of fire safety education and fire department public relations should remind everyone charged with “doing something” about fire safety that alleviating this country’s fire problem does not mean convincing the public to think more highly of the fire department or to buy tickets to the firemen’s ball. It means teaching people fire-safe behavior.

Fire departments can use promotional items to partially satisfy their community’s fire education needs. One way this can be done is by displaying fire safety slogans on giveaway items. But educators must be able to distinguish between slogans which merely popularize the department and those which inculcate safe behaviors.

Slogan that teaches

For instance, a ruler that advertises the need to “crawl below smoke” teaches. It reminds its audience of what to do in an emergency. One of the well-known fire safety slogans, the National Fire Protection Association’s “Learn not to burn,” is memorable and has served as a rallying cry for fire safety personnel for years, but it teaches no behavior. Like the equally famous Smokey the Bear line, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” what does it mean, really?

I am not suggesting that promotional materials are valueless, only that their value tends to be something other than educational, and if a fire department actually wants to use such materials to produce a safer city, it must structure its messages carefully.

It is possible for fire departments to join the related strategies of public education and public relations into something called marketing fire safety. When one markets fire safety, he employs the techniques of the advertiser to “sell” fire safety. He uses mascots or logos, slogans and the media to communicate problems and solutions, needs and products.

Use of mascot

The difference between instructing and advertising or selling lies in the technique of delivery. The educator spends most of his time talking to groups, teaching them through films and demonstrations how to prevent and survive a fire. On the other hand, to market and advertise fire safety, he uses a mascot or logo and a slogan to reach the public with a message. Just as McDonald’s sells hamburgers with the “golden arches” and “You deserve a break today,” and Kellogg sells Frosted Flakes with Tony the Tiger and “They’re gr-r-reat,” so too does the NFPA use Sparky the Fire Dog and “Learn not to burn” to market fire safety. Almost all heavily advertised products are sold through a combination of mascot or logo and slogan.

Coloring book cover features Ferbie.

Marketing and advertising firms depend upon a synchronized logo and slogan to be able to remind the public repeatedly of their product and to visually and orally reinforce a basic message, eat here, eat this, buy here, buy this. In the same way, the fire service can market fire safety by combining elements of effective teaching and advertising.

Some fire educators may look askance at this notion of advertising and marketing fire prevention and survival, but the fact is they are probably already using proven marketing techniques. For example, Tony the Tiger makes his television pitch on Saturday mornings, even though the members of that youthful audience do not purchase the cereal. Their parents do.

Influence of children

Similarly, public educators pitch most of their survival programs to children, intending for them to carry home the message and motivate their parents. More fire escape plans, for example, are sold through children than to parents directly. In fact, whether public educators realize it or not, when they urge an audience to install early warning devices in residences, they are helping to advertise and market smoke detectors. Besides smoke detectors, educators attempt to sell fire extinguishers, escape ladders and safety cans. Also, they push EDITH, stop-drop-roll, cooking safety, smoking safety, and so on.

In Oklahoma City, public fire safety educators are heavily involved in talking to and instructing groups, especially in planning and delivering school and neighborhood programs. But we also use an advertising approach to enhance the teaching. Our mascot is Ferbie the Fire Prevention Frog, who usually is pictured as if he were standing in front of a dart board that bears the slogan: “Ferbie’s target is zero fires.” This slogan is part of our logo, which is merely a vehicle to build recognition and attract attention to our programs. Ferbie is also pictured in the logo carrying a magnifying glass since his life’s work is checking for fire hazards.

To have an effective marketing campaign, fire educators must exhaust every available avenue of exposure for their logo and slogan because these communication tools are valueless if not seen repeatedly. In Oklahoma City, residents encounter Ferbie, his slogan and various behavioral messages in a myriad of places. The Ferbie logo and the message, “Practice a home fire escape plan” appear on a roadside billboard that is rotated to different areas of the city every two months, which gives the impression that there are several of them throughout the city. (Donrey Outdoor Advertising donated this board as a public service.)

Ferbie on TV

Ferbie is frequently seen on television, pictured on brief public service announcements aired during station identification, where he communicates different behavioral messages: “Keep matches above the strike zone,” “Store gasoline outside,” and “Smother pan fires,” to name a few. (We can produce as many of these PSAs as our fire problem dictates.)

Ferbie is also the star character in a 20-page coloring book which teaches children several fire prevention and survival behaviors. The graphics of the book’s four-color cover are identical to those on the billboard, which adds to the visual repetition and reinforcement advertising campaigns depend upon. Ferbie also has his own Junior Fire Marshal Club, complete with membership card featuring the standard logo and slogan. Most effective of all, perhaps, is the full-body costume of Ferbie that is taken to malls, parades, schools, and wherever else we must go to reach our target audience.

In short, we want all Oklahoma City residents to recognize Ferbie and his slogan and to be able to immediately associate them with fire safety, just as McDonald’s wants us to salivate whenever we see the “golden arches” or Ronald McDonald. Also, because Ferbie is very purposefully cute and irresistible, he has proven to be a better salesman that any mere human could be.

Animal logo advantage

An animal logo like Ferbie offers an additional advantage for fire safety educators whose target audience includes different minorities. Ferbie is raceless, ageless and even partly sexless, so he can comfortably enter any environment or be exposed to any audience mixture without our having to make special allowances for the racial, age, or sex makeup of the audience. Anyone familiar with the frequently insulting attempts to depict different races in handout fire safety materials will appreciate the convenience of not having to devote time to such a thankless task.

Although Oklahoma City has not yet expanded into the pencil, ruler, key chain and bumper sticker business, we can. And when we do, all of these items will feature our Ferbie logo and some behavioral message. When part of a broad-based marketing and educational campaign, promotional giveaways are valuable motivators.

Education and marketing or advertising overlap and often have similar goals. As I pointed out in an April Fire Engineering article, “Targeting fire education for any specific audience utilizes concepts of marketing and education. We are trying to sell (teach) a consumer (student) certain merchandise (ideas and behavior).”

Fire departments need not become miniature Madison Avenues to attack their fire problem, but all education, marketing, and promotional work should address the same goal of improving the target audience’s ability to prevent and survive fire.

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