The industry must embrace the opportunity to become a powerful driver of behavioural change, says Professor Jeff French

Britons have one of the worst records in Europe when it comes to obesity, while the nation's smoking addiction costs the NHS £2.7bn a year and alcohol-related diseases account for one in eight NHS bed days.

These statistics are depressing. So rather than criticise the government's Responsibility Deal, which will rely heavily on the support of fmcgs and retail giants, I feel it is a sensible initiative that is likely to have a positive impact.

Instead of forcing people to behave more virtuously through legislation, social marketing initiatives like this can guide them in the right direction to help make healthy choices the easy and more attractive ones. I can see the sense in this approach for a number of reasons.

Firstly, creating and disseminating information and advice to encourage healthier behaviour just doesn't cut the mustard in most situations. That's just nagging. And nagging doesn't work. I'm not saying it achieves nothing, but while catch-all campaigns can raise awareness, when people return home, those ideas are often forgotten.

Secondly, to get people to behave differently, to eat and drink sensibly, it has to be made easy for them to do so. Getting fmcg producers and retailers to help achieve this is a no-brainer. I would expect to see signs placed at supermarket checkouts reinforcing social norms about the amount of fruit and veg bought by the average shopper in an attempt to increase healthy eating and decrease alcohol consumption.

Thirdly, we live in an age of general mistrust of government, so getting the right messenger to spread the word, provide the support that makes adopting a new behaviour easy, fun and practical, is vital. Today's consumers often exhibit closer connections with brands and supermarkets than government.

Fourthly, it is almost impossible for one organisation by itself, whether public or private, to achieve the required level of mass behaviour change on the scale we need to see. There is huge scope for public and private partners to work together for social good.

Instead of having the commercial food and retail sector almost, at times, 'competing' against public health messages, a new public/private coalition will see the development of a co-operative approach to achieving overall sustainable and beneficial change. The creation of multi-sector coalitions of public, private and NGO organisations working together to influence specific behaviours in a sustained and coordinated way is possible.

The benefits of making a real contribution to these big social issues won't just be felt by the wider populace. Companies that make the shift from traditional CSR to corporate social marketing will probably also increase customer loyalty and improve brand positioning.

Social marketing is now at the stage that, instead of borrowing techniques from the commercial world, it can teach commercial marketers valuable lessons about understanding and effecting behavioural change.

The sector must embrace this opportunity. When it does, I can guarantee that social marketing, along with behavioural economic and social psychology techniques to achieve social good, will be on the 2011 agenda of every marketer in the sector.

Professor Jeff French is organiser of the World Social Marketing Conference in Dublin on 11-12 April.