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Social Marketing: What it is NOT

I betray my age with this but reading through the first module of Social Marketing: Changing Behaviors for Good by Nancy Lee and Philip Kotler reminded me of a popular series of TV ads in the 1980s. The commercials were about mothers shopping for soap to address their teenagers’ pimple infection, and just as they are about to pick up a beauty brand, their konsensya appears, telling them that Safeguard is the best protection against the skin germs that cause pimples.

This is, of course, commercial marketing at its finest—something that skeptics like me have come to easily identify and doubt. And so to learn that marketing has historically been used for purposes nobler than to build the wealth of the already-wealthy is a revelation and a relief.  

Social marketing, I believe, puts the conscience in marketing. To shift from marketing for profit to marketing for public gain is a kind of poetic redemption for those of us who at one time or another have served corporate interests over common good (no judgment here, just stating facts).

But what does it mean to do social marketing, exactly? It means using marketing as a tool to affect behaviors for the benefit of society. That means identifying your audience, including the segments that must be prioritized; doing market research and analyzing current behavior; and integrating elements of marketing and communication, such as the 4Ps, value exchange, behavioral economics, etc. to create a program aimed at behavior change.  

To properly do social marketing requires not just knowing what it does but also understanding what it’s not. Here are some vital points that distinguish social marketing as a discipline:

  • It is not concerned with self-interest. Businesses with corporate social responsibility departments could easily launch or fund initiatives to influence public behavior for the common good. However, if say, a pharmaceutical company producing dengue vaccines launches an initiative promoting the vaccination of children using their product—that is not social marketing.
  • It is not used to change people’s values. While a change in knowledge due to social marketing may cause a change in the audience’s values, that is not the goal of social marketing. The aim is to get people to adopt the desired behavior. Knowing you should not text and drive does not mean you wouldn’t.
  • It is not a random act of kindness. It is a systematic process that involves the careful planning and application of marketing principles and techniques to influence people toward a desired behavior. It requires budgeting, monitoring and evaluation.
  • It is not social media. Social media is merely one platform for communicating the messages needed to achieve the goal of social marketing.
  • It is not easier than commercial marketing. Have you ever been convinced to buy vegan ingredients for your adobo? Great, that’s points for commercial marketing. Have you stopped eating anything with animals or animal products in it? No? Too hard? That’s because it is always more difficult to change behaviors that define our lifestyle than to try a new product.  
  • It is not a one-time thing. Well, initially, it could be, but as suggested by Alan Andreasen, social marketing can also be used to ensure the continuance of an adopted behavior to sustain the societal gains derived from it.

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