Social marketing is a tool or framework that “relies on multiple scientific disciplines to create programs designed to influence human behavior on a large scale” (Smith 2006, 138). It traces its roots to an article written in the 1950s by the sociologist G. D. Wiebe, who “expressed concern that marketing was not being applied to such problems as ‘selling brotherhood like soap’” (Andreasen 2003, 294). The idea did not grow, however, until the 1960s and 1970s, when scholars such as Philip Kotler, Sidney Levy, Gerald Zaltman, and Alan Andreasen began to write about its core principles and gave it a name (Andreasen 2003).
Although social marketing has been used to address a variety of social concerns, it has been most consistently used in health promotion and disease prevention (Andreasen 2002), which has made it an area of special interest to scholars in health communication. Successful social marketing initiatives focused on health outcomes have included the truth® anti-smoking campaign aimed at teenagers; the Swiss Stop AIDS program, which sought to increase condom use among casual sex partners; the VERB™ campaign, which promoted activity among 9–13 year olds; and the PREMI initiative, which increased immunization coverage in Ecuador (for more detailed examples, see Lefebvre & Flora 1988; Grier & Bryant 2005; Smith 2006).
Social marketing is characterized by six defining criteria (Andreasen 2002). (1) Behavior change is the benchmark used to design and evaluate interventions. (2) Projects consistently use audience research to (a) understand target audiences at the outset of the interventions (i.e., formative research), (b) routinely pre-test intervention elements before they are implemented, and (c) monitor interventions as they are rolled out. (3) There is careful segmentation of the target audiences to ensure maximum efficiency and effectiveness in the use of scarce resources. (4) The central element of any influence strategy is creating attractive motivational exchanges with target audiences. (5). The strategy attempts to use all four Ps (i.e., product, price, place, and promotion) of the traditional marketing mix. (6) Careful attention is paid to the competition faced by the desired behavior.
Theoretical Foundation of Social Marketing
Although social marketers have turned to a variety of theoretical perspectives for insight into individual initiatives, exchange theory serves as social marketing’s primary conceptual foundation. Exchange theory, which is derived from psychological and economic principles, “assumes that we are need-directed beings with a natural inclination to try and improve our lot” (Hastings & Saren 2003, 309). In order for a successful exchange to occur, both parties act primarily to fulfill their own interests. In the case of a healthrelated initiative, an effective marketing organization assesses and meets the needs of a target audience, and the organization benefits in return when members of the audience change their behavior (Maibach 2002). According to Smith (2000), the emphasis on exchange theory differentiates social marketing from other approaches to behavior change such as education, which assumes that knowledge in and of itself leads to change, and a regulatory approach, which highlights enforcement as the most effective path to change.
The Marketing Mix
One of the important features of social marketing is the marketing mix, which is borrowed from commercial marketing and is commonly referred to as the 4 Ps. A social marketing initiative carefully integrates all four elements.
The first of the four Ps is product, which is the “bundle of benefits being offered to members of the target audience” (Maibach 2002, 11). Although it is possible for the product to be a physical object such as a condom, more commonly social marketers attempt to “sell” an intangible product such as an idea, a social cause, or, most frequently, a change of behavior (e.g., eating more fruits and vegetables or using seat belts). When the product is not something one can easily hold or touch, the social marketer has the challenge of making “these ‘intangibles’ tangible in a way that appeals to the target audience” (Lefebvre & Flora 1988, 306).
In commercial marketing, price usually refers to the monetary value placed on a product. In social marketing, money also can figure into the price an audience member must pay in order to change behavior, but price also refers, at least in part, to the collective barriers that an individual must overcome to adopt the proposed action (Smith 2000). Non-monetary barriers can be “social, behavioral, psychological, temporal, structural, geographic, and physical” (Lefebvre & Flora 1988, 307). Price, however, is not simply about the downside of change. Part of conducting a price analysis for social marketers is also identifying the incentives a member of the target group can enjoy as a result of adopting a new behavior (e.g., an increased sense of self-esteem after losing weight).
Place, which also can be called the distribution channel, refers to “the process by which the product is made available to members of the target market at the time and place when it will be of most value to them” (Maibach 2002, 11). In order for social marketers to take advantage of the most ideal places, they have to identify what Grier and Bryant (2005) called “path points,” which are locations people regularly visit; times of the day, week, or year of their visits; and points in the life cycle where people are likely to act.
Promotion, which is the most visible component of the marketing mix (Grier & Bryant 2005), is the social marketing element most directly linked to communication. The communication options available to a social marketer are many and varied. One can, for instance, promote a product through advertising, public relations, consumer promotions, education, counseling, community organizations, interpersonal networks, point-of-purchase materials, direct mail, signage, special events and displays, printed materials, entertainment media, and the web (Grier & Bryant 2005; Maibach 2002; Smith 2000). Social marketing scholars posit that too often individuals not familiar with the complex relationship of all four Ps to one another reduce social marketing to promotion only (Maibach 2002). For an initiative to be labeled accurately as social marketing, the process must include the entire mix and not just the creation and communication of a message.
Social Marketing Criticisms and Directions
Use of Theory
One area of criticism frequently associated with social marketing is the application of theory. These criticisms have come in two forms. First, many social marketing initiatives either forego a direct reference to a theoretical base altogether, or, at the very least, reflect an application of theory that lacks formality. Walsh et al. (1993, 115) noted that professional social marketers often approach their task as “intuitive tinkerers” who are “impatient with the proposition that their craft warrants or can fruitfully be subjected to formal theory testing.”
Second, some scholars, such as Lefebvre, have argued that social marketing should go beyond exchange theory and called for theoretical eclecticism that will make social marketing a stronger, more vibrant approach to behavior change (Bryant 2004). Grier and Bryant (2005) also argued for eclecticism by suggesting that social marketers incorporate standard health behavior theories and models (e.g., theory of reasoned action, social learning theory, transtheoretical model) when appropriate, as well as frameworks less familiar to social marketers such as the emotional contagion model, political risk compensation theory, risk homeostasis theory, and social capital.
Research and Evaluation
Another major challenge social marketers face is to incorporate rigorous research into their campaigns. This is difficult for two reasons. First, quality research at any level requires resources in the form of money, people, and time. Many organizations and groups (e.g., government offices and nonprofits) that wish to create campaigns often sacrifice needed research in order to dedicate what resources are available to the promotion portion of the marketing mix (i.e., communicating the message).
For instance, at the formative stage of campaign development, some social marketers forego data collection altogether, or the information they gather provides limited insights. Grier and Bryant (2005) argued, for example, that social marketers rely too heavily on focus groups, which often can be completed more quickly and with less expense, to make strategic decisions. Although focus groups conducted properly can provide very meaningful knowledge, Grier and Bryant believed that (1) disproportionate use of focus groups can be misleading because issues that people discuss do not always have the greatest impact on behavioral decisions; and (2) focus group data cannot provide needed insight into audience segmentation in the way that quantitative data can, which often are more resource intensive to gather.
Second, social marketing initiatives often lack sufficient outcome data to provide persuasive evidence that a campaign actually worked. Again, lack of resources accounts for much of the problem, but a larger issue relates to measurement and evaluation design. Commercial marketers typically have clearly defined objectives against which success can be measured, such as sales or market share, but outcome evaluation for social marketers requires greater creativity to detect change. Grier and Bryant (2005) contended that there are innovative methods available to social marketers for providing convincing evidence for change, but results will only be taken seriously when they avoid the common mistakes made in outcome evaluation, such as measuring outcomes too early, before change can occur, failing to measure exposure to the promotion and expecting too much from a limited intervention “dose,” measuring the wrong outcomes, and using the wrong units of analysis when measuring effects (e.g., individuals instead of communities).
Although there have been criticisms directed at social marketing as a framework for behavior change and there are continued challenges that social marketers face, consistent evidence suggests that when applied with rigor social marketing has great potential as a tool for positive effect.
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