What is social marketing

What Is Social Marketing? And How Does It Work?

Social Marketing - not to be confused with Social Media Marketing.

Social marketing campaigns are those that borrow from commercial marketing techniques for social engagement – influencing a target audience to change their social behaviours and to benefit society.

The importance of social marketing cannot be underestimated because it often raises awareness of far-reaching topics that are often out of the sight and mind of the mainstream population.

Whether it’s related to the environment, public health, safety, or community development, marketing for good is a methodology for creating change.

The history of social marketing

As a formal discipline, social marketing started in 1971 when Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman published their article “Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change” in the Journal of Marketing.

Since then, marketers have been playing with social marketing ideas, refining the strategies, and working on the most effective means of spurring widespread changes in social behaviour in a variety of fields.

In , public health and environmental concerns top the list of most used social marketing topics.

Social marketing definition, what it is and what it isn’t

There are many approaches to obtaining a societal change through effective social cause marketing programs. Still, the central tenant always remains the same: the social good is always the primary focus.

Whether it’s trying to convince the public to stop smoking or encouraging men in developing counties to use condoms, the focus is always on the public good first.

The concept of societal marketing, therefore, revolves around driving change to local, national, and international communities in creative ways, for the public interest.

Social marketing, therefore, should not be confused with other similar terms: social media marketing, green or sustainable marketing, and commercial marketing with a social focus.

  • Social media marketing is that which uses social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn. These are collective groups of web properties that are published primarily by users to build online communities. They can be used to generate publicity for social marketing campaigns, but that is not their primary purpose.
  • Sustainable marketing is that which is used by a corporation to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility. Although a commercial company may engage in social marketing–promoting support for public radio, for instance–sustainable marketing to promote their own business does not qualify as social marketing.
  • Commercial marketing with a social focus may run the gamut from advertising a new 100 per cent recycled plastic water bottle to encouraging people to buy a more fuel-efficient car. While these marketing campaigns are promoting eco-friendly products that will undoubtedly have benefits for society, their primary focus is not societal good; it is selling a product.

According to the Institute for Social Marketing, these are the most important social marketing strategies and techniques:

  • The ultimate objective of marketing is to influence action and change behaviour;
  • Action is undertaken whenever target audiences believe that the benefits they receive will be greater than the costs they incur;
  • Programs to influence action will be more effective if they are based on an understanding of the target audience’s perceptions of the proposed exchange;
  • Target audiences are seldom uniform in their perceptions or likely responses to marketing efforts and so should be partitioned into segments;
  • Marketing efforts must incorporate all of the “4 Ps,” i.e.:
    • Create an enticing “Product” (i.e., the package of benefits associated with the desired action);
    • Minimise the “Price” the target audience believes it must pay in the exchange;
    • Make the exchange and its opportunities available in “Places” that reach the audience and fit its lifestyles;
    • Promote the exchange opportunity with creativity and through channels and tactics that maximise desired responses;
  • Recommended behaviours always have competition which must be understood and addressed;
  • The marketplace is continually changing, and so program effects must be regularly monitored, and management must be prepared to alter strategies and tactics rapidly.

The best examples of social cause marketing campaigns, which result in actual change, are the ones designed to shock, provoke, inform, and remind – all at once!

17 real-life examples of social marketing campaigns in advertising

PG Palmoil Advertisement by GreenPeace USA
PG Palmoil Ad by Greenpeace USA
Buckle Up Advertisement by Quebec Insurance Association
Buckle Up Ad by Quebec Insurance Association
Mobility/Physical Disability Awareness Ad by The American Disability Association
Mobility/Physical Disability Awareness Ad by The American Disability Association
Save Paper Advertisement by WWF
Save Paper Ad by WWF
Obesity and Cancer Awareness Ad by Cancer Research UK
Obesity and Cancer Awareness Ad by Cancer Research UK
Coke Recycling Advertisement by GreenPeace AU
Coca Cola Recycling Ad by Greenpeace Australia
Anti-Smoking Advert by The NHS
Anti-Smoking Ad by The NHS
Human Rights Advert by Amnesty International
Human Rights Ad by Amnesty International
Censorship tells the wrong story by reporters without borders
Censorship Ad by RSF
Skin Colour Ad by Licra
Skin Colour Ad by Licra
Air Pollution Ad by NRDC
Air Pollution Ad by NRDC
Moms Demand Action advertisement
Gun Control Ad by Moms Demand Action
Smart ideas smart cities ad by IBM
Make a Positive Difference Ad by IBM
Your beauty up in smoke social action poster McCann Healthcare
Quit-Smoking Ad by McCann Healthcare
Poverty Eradication Ad by The Salvation Army
Poverty Eradication Ad by The Salvation Army
Schizophrenia Can Be Treated, Seek Help Ad by Coop Mútua-Ação
Schizophrenia Can Be Treated, Seek Help Ad by Coop Mútua-Ação
What Is Social Marketing? And How Does It Work?
Anti Domestic-Abuse Ad by APAV Victim Support

Additional examples of social marketing in different forms of media

Social marketing campaigns are not limited to advertising either; for example, they often get used in magazine covers too.

One example of this includes a series by the National Geographic called “Planet or Plastic”, published in June 2018.

In this campaign, NatGeo featured a photo of a plastic bag in the form of an iceberg as their front cover, to raise awareness of the billions of plastic wastage polluting the oceans.

National Geographic, Planet or Plastic series

Similarly, newspapers also engage in social cause marketing for the public interest.

An example of this includes when mainstream Australian newspapers blacked-out their front pages in October 2019, to raise awareness against government clampdown of media freedom.

Australian newspapers blackout their front pages to raise awareness for government clampdown against media freedom

Or most commonly, social good marketing campaigns come in the form of placards, used by activists during boycotts, demonstrations, and other forms of protests, like the “Business As Usual = Death” poster by the Extinction Rebellion.

Extinction Rebellion, "Business As Usual = Death" protest


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