Social marketing will save us all! (maybe)

March 11th, 2013 / Together


With increasingly regularity, at Together we are receiving briefs for work that gives substantial consideration to socially and environmentally responsible elements. While some may still ask the question whether business in the modern climate can afford to prioritise responsible and sustainable actions, the answer seems to be that many businesses feel this is something they can no longer ignore.

A lot of what we’re asked to consider now as an agency falls under the remit of Social Marketing, and more specifically how that may bring about significant social change.

The sociologist, G.D. Wiebe spoke of how marketing could be adapted from its traditional role of selling goods for commercial profit, to influencing attitudes and shaping behaviour that could generate positive social change. He succinctly defined this shift in purpose as ‘selling brotherhood like soap’.

The essence of this increasingly relevant strand of marketing is not so much in changing ideas as changing behaviour. As such, the ultimate criteria by which social marketing projects can be measured against is the behavioural influence it generates – an indicator notoriously difficult to identify and accurately attribute a cause to.

Social marketing in its inception was focussed almost solely on promoting contraception. In recent years its value and application has diversified across all kinds of social strands. Nowadays, theories and best practice guides for impactful social marketing are prevalent throughout academic and working arenas.

Even the most perfunctory examination of the corporate and commercial spheres suggests that adopting the tools of persuasion and engagement from traditional marketing will aid a push towards positive societal change in fields as diverse as health, equality, education and environment.

One of the chief exponents of the virtue (even the necessity) of social marketing is Alan R Andreasen who states that the effectiveness of the medium, itself needs to be marketed to industry. He suggests we, as an industry, must be bolder in finding and suggesting ways in which social marketing principles can be effectively implemented.

The landscape of marketing is shifting. Commercial transactions now form just  part of our purpose. The new goal is significant and lasting behaviour change, not just through the public sector where this is widely adopted, but across the private sector also.

Social marketing should not be considered to be a rival to its commercial cousin. Instead they should be partners to establish and indoctrinate a consumer centric approach to communicating sustainability and social responsibility. While social marketing may combine various disciplines such as sociology, economics and anthropology, at the heart of this is the marketing instinct that drives the commercial sphere.

Together the two disciplines can target and then exploit the sensitive human triggers to social change. There is no disguising the fact that there is a huge challenge. Even assuming there is a willingness to change, converting that mentality into action is difficult and complex. An even more substantial challenge then emerges in maintaining that change.

Behaviour, as a concept and in reality, is not constant or inflexible, it is inherently fluid and impressionable. The challenge of social marketing is to achieve what is known as ‘the critical movement between contemplation and action’.

It can be done. It has been done on many, many occasions. And, if it gets done an awful lot more, it just might save us all.

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