In 2008 the melamine scandal erupted in China. The industrial chemical was discovered throughout the milk supply, killing at least 4 babies and hospitalizing more than 50,000. Chinese parents were faced with a life and death infant feeding decision. With a low breastfeeding rate and one of the fastest growing formula markets on earth, the melamine crisis initiated the great Chinese “run” on foreign infant formula.
But a different kind of response to the scandal has gone unnoticed. Families in China are giving breastfeeding another chance – they still lack trust in the milk powder supply. National statistics may not have picked up the trend, but much anecdotal evidence supports the claim. In 2012 Taobao.com, China’s uber-popular online shopping mall, was so impressed by spiking demand for breast pumps on their site that they produced this popular video about “bei nai mamas” (carry milk mothers). Bei nai mamas – a growing force – want to continue breastfeeding when they return to work after maternity leave.
When we realized the private sector had started to capitalize on this new trend, we saw an opportunity for UNICEF to use social media to engage parents in a national discussion about the incomparable benefits of breastfeeding. Weibo (China’s twitter) was relatively new for UNICEF, but we had already seen its power to ignite passionate discussions about important child protection issues.
Without advance planning we started a weibo campaign which revealed the unusual power of social media to promote behavior and attitude change on a national scale. Timing our first tweets to support a National People’s Congress resolution on breastfeeding promotion, we discovered a passionate community of breastfeeding bloggers who began forwarding and discussing our content.
The first tweet of our campaign was launched by UNICEF China Ambassador and power blogger Yang Lan, a major media personality often called China’s Oprah Winfrey. Her 10 million weibo followers helped open a floodgate with 11,000 re-tweets and 5,000 comments. One micro-blogger commented: “Early this morning, I saw this tweet and finally felt relieved of my worries. My child breastfed exclusively till 6 months. I have been concerned that compared with other kids, my child is a bit slimmer.”
The “fat baby-thin baby” dilemma quickly rose to prominence in the exploding weibo discussion. This gave us an important clue on what parents needed to hear from UNICEF.
This UNICEF post was re-tweeted 2,010 times and received 195 comments: “Fatter babies are not always healthier! Fast weight gain does not necessarily mean optimal development. Breastfed babies grow fastest two to three months after birth and gradually slow down. In contrast, artificially fed babies tend to gain weight much quicker but also face higher risks of obesity, over-weight, diabetes and cardio-vascular disease.”
We marveled as posts like these shaped a digital discussion that efficiently dissipated one of the most problematic misconceptions about breastfeeding, fueled by a passionate community of online advocates. The communication lessons then came thick and fast.
This slide prepared for a regional meeting of UNICEF communicators showed how we discovered a network of breastfeeding advocacy groups with large followings on weibo. It opened the door UNICEF’s first large scale partnership with citizen volunteers in China and helped us build the model for our current “10m2 of Love” campaign to register and map breastfeeding rooms in workplaces and shopping malls across China.
When the dust settled at the end of a 10 day guerilla campaign we had started a rich national give and take on a key child rights issue, discovered a super-efficient C4D media channel capable of engaging millions, initiated UNICEF’s first formal partnership with citizen volunteers, placed breastfeeding on the national legislative agenda, produced 28 weibo posts, amassed 25,000 forwards and 7,000 comments and gained 20,000 or more new weibo followers.