Bernie the Sheep, social marketing tackling social problems

Bernie the Sheep.
Bernie the Sheep.

Here’s an example of how social marketing and social media are being used innovatively to deliver better public services in Wales.  I really would have liked to have found something other than a sheep story (they tend to reinforce stereotypes). But with about 9 million sheep, we are the most important sheep rearing area in Europe, it was almost inevitable.

Deliberately started grass fires are a big deal in the South Wales Valleys; causing widespread damage, threatening people,property, livestock and costing at least £7million annually. Not huge when compared with the situation in Arizona and New Mexico, but still a major problem.

Bernie the Sheep is a collaboration between a number of organisations including South Wales Fire and Rescue Service and BRASS at Cardiff University. Full project details are available on the BRASS website.

Briefly what happened was; the partners worked out that the deliberate setting of grass fires peaked in the Easter School holidays. They established this was essentially a social problem, “everyone’s doing it”, “my dad and grandpa did it, and it’s a bit of a laugh”. They developed a social marketing approach to tackle a social problem and try
and encourage behaviour change. This was an innovative approach that was more common in the heath sector in areas such as healthy eating and anti smoking campaigns.  The evaluation of the 2010 pilots has indicated it was a success with a 46% reduction in the occurrence of predicted grass fires and an estimated cost saving of £120K (a 2:1 return on the investment). On this basis a much wider implementation was planned for the 2011 grass fire season.  Check the Bernie Newsletter for more information.

Two things stand out in this project for me; the ‘go to where the people are’ element and some interesting behaviours I observed around the use of social media.

For ‘go to where the people are’, this relates to how the partners chose to use Facebook as the method for communicating with the kids of Tonypandy. It seems so obvious but they did some research on what social media platforms are being used and then asked the target market (the kids) what they would prefer to use, which was Facebook. The partners set up a Bernie website and Facebook profile, and it does the job (Bernie has over 1000 Facebook friends).This is as far as I could see is a typical market research approach that could be usefully be applied in some areas where knowledge sharing solutions are currently being developed on a ‘build it and they will come’ basis.

The interesting behaviour I observed was from people who were aware of the project and advised me  ……. “don’t do an internet image search on Bernie the Sheep in work, it’s not safe!” Well I’ve done extensive searches and can’t find anything that would remotely offend my Maiden Aunt or the Vicar. This seems to be some sort of low-level urban myth around that, Bernie the Sheep + Internet = Danger which is both ridiculous and unfounded.

Interestingly a number of the people peddling the ‘myth’  were a bit sceptical about Bernie. Unfortunately I couldn’t get to the bottom of whether it was about the use of social marketing and social media or the fact it was a new and innovative approach, a change with tradition. Whatever the reason, the urban myth did create a bit of a sense of uncertainty and a slight whiff of fear. This might put people off looking at the opportunities that Bernie the Sheep project might offer them, which is a real shame.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. The market research, ‘go to where the people are’ approach for choosing the most appropriate method of communication with the target market was very effective.
  2. Social media does have a place in public service delivery, particularly when you are tackling social problems.
  3. Urban myths and negative stories can have a significant impact on the success of an initiative. They need to be avoided.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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