Social Marketing, What is it?


So I thought I’d post something a little different to digital marketing content and give everyone an introduction to social marketing, have a read, give some feedback! Thanks


For governments and non-governmental agencies, trying to understand people’s behaviour sits at the core for developing interventions to tackle big social and health challenges ranging from issues as diverse as obesity, smoking and binge drinking all the way through to climate change and crime, according to French (2010). These bodies (government and non-government) are constantly seeking to understand and influence how and why people behave as they do, in order to develop and implement social interventions that have the best possible chance of helping citizens live out a long, healthy and positive life.

This is where the concept known as social marketing comes into play. This concept was first used in the 1970s by Kotler and Gerald who defined it as “the design, implementation, and control of programs calculated to influence the acceptability of social ideas….”. From reading the definition, it can be seen why governments and NGAs (non-governmental agencies) might find social marketing valuable. To better illustrate what social marketing is, modern day examples can be found easily in commercials, emails, radio and other platforms.

A prominent and controversial example was the New York City department of health social marketing campaign against sugary drinks. The campaign named ‘Are you pouring on the pounds’ showcases devastating impact that drinking sugary drinks everyday can have on a person’s body. This came about when obesity was becoming prominent social problem in American society in 2009. Research showed that Americans in 2009 consume 200 to 300 more calories daily than 30 years ago (Healthy Beverages).

The campaign features a commercials of a man drinking literal fat out of what looks like a soft drink can. It is rather disgusting and difficult to watch, yet it successfully manages to convince people not to drink sugary drinks by using shock tactics to gain attention and then providing information about healthy alternatives. This is one example of many in how social marketing has ability to bring about pro-social change.

Social marketing is focused on enabling, encouraging, and supporting behavioural change or maintenance among target audiences and the re-engineering of services and systems to support and facilitate change (French, 2010).

Focusing more on the social issue of healthy eating, many principles of social marketing and its techniques have actually been applied to health promotion practices without the label of social marketing being attached to them, like the campaign mentioned previously ‘Are you pouring on the pounds?’

Social marketing fits into contemporary society in the same way consumer marketing does by practicings the notion of exchange, or better known as exchange theory. This theory states that consumers act primarily out of self interest as they seeks ways to optimise value by doing what gives them the greatest benefit for the least cost (Grier & Bryant, 2005). Exchange theory reminds social marketers that they must (a) offer benefits that the consumer truly values; (b) recognize that consumers often pay intangible costs, such as time and psychic discomfort associated with changing behaviors; (c) acknowledge that everyone involved in the exchange, must receive valued benefits in return for their effort (Grier & Bryant, 2005).

The difference between consumer and social marketing is what is being exchanged. In consumer marketing products or services are exchanged for money, whereas in social marketing there is rarely an immediate, explicit payback to target audiences in return for their adoption of healthy behavior. The benefit occurs much later than when the behaviour is generally started. This leads to a discussion on the potential strengths and limitations that social marketing has in relation to public health and in particular healthy eating.

Starting with the potential strengths, social marketing has had a beneficial impact on how the public health sector educates the public and persuades communities and individuals to adopt healthy practices (Ling, Franklin, Linsteadt, Gearon, 1992). Before social marketing, many people were not greatly aware of problems that can arise from having an unhealthy diet including obesity, heart condition, loss of mobility and eating disorders. This is mostly due to lack of access to information. People would have had to gone to a doctor, a dietician or another professional in the health sector just to be educated on the problems that arise from an unhealthy diet. Social marketing allows greater access to information that benefits people.

The strategic use of mass media is also another major strength in social marketing, as it creates awareness of current behaviours and reinforces health practices to a massive amount of the target audiences (Ling, Franklin, Linsteadt, Gearon, 1992). Particularly with eating healthy, it is easy to demonstrate the negative effects of a poor diet with short commercials and radio advertisements. An example of a mass media being used in social marketing is the baby carrots marketing campaign. It sounds ridiculous but a Bolthouse farms partnered with a marketing agency launched the ‘Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food’ marketing campaign.

The title basically summarises the entire strategy. Market healthy food such as baby carrots in the style that junk food markets their food, by making it exciting, sexy or cool. The campaign was incredibly successful which led to baby carrots being packaged like chips, vending machines filled with baby carrots being installed in high schools and universities and iPhone games being created that featured baby carrots (Lum, 2010).

Another strength in social marketing in regard to eating healthy, is qualitative as it involves aspiring to high standards. Social marketing, with its roots in the commercial world, often aspires to attain the best information, materials and talent. This has alerted many public health professionals who have all too often been compelled to accept second rate work as a result of budgetary constraints to strive to higher standards of practices and work (Ling, Franklin, Linsteadt, Gearon, 1992).

With social marketing having many strengths, comes with a lot of limitations. Social marketing often takes it as a given that a particular behaviour should be adopted and does not always ask if a particular behaviour makes sense, is capable of being adopted or question the barriers in a person choosing to adopt a behaviour, such as eating healthy. For example, in rural Australia, healthy food costs a lot more than in CBD locations due to extra costs of transport, storage and handling, yet are often lower socioeconomic areas than that of the CBD (the conversation, 2013). This creates a barrier in terms of accessibility and affordability, that of which simple social marketing campaigns cannot solve.

Social Marketing can make the mistake of assuming the funders’ ideal behaviour or action is right, just, appropriate, and do-able. As a result campaigns are often based around remarkably shallow and simplistic behavioural prescriptions.

Simply stating ‘eat right’ is not enabling anyone to change behaviours (

Social marketing is a powerful tool that when used properly can enable governments and NGA’s to promote behaviours that will benefit a person positively and can increase the knowledge of wicked issues such as healthy eating. It needs to provide a value exchange that benefits everyone involved, even if benefits are not seen for an extended period of time. Most importantly, social marketers need to account for barriers and limitations that a social marketing campaign may have and need to have shocking, informative and most importantly engaging content being shared.


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