I often find myself asking “Where do people get these odd ideas about social marketing from?” You probably know some of them, such as –
- Social marketing programs take a lot of time to plan.
- Social marketing is expensive to do.
- You have to do focus groups to do social marketing.
- Social marketing segments audiences to deliver tailored messages to them.
- Social marketing is consumer-driven.
- Social marketing is about reducing the barriers and costs to engaging in healthier behaviors.
- Social marketing is the application of commercial marketing principles and techniques for social change.
- Social marketing is all about delivering benefits to a target audience.
- Social marketing is a framework to identify what factors might drive and maintain behavior change.
- Social marketing is a way to develop strategic communication campaigns.
And I imagine after reading some of these you might wonder “What’s so odd about this one?”
Well, to the first question first…
The key reason that people misunderstand social marketing is that most public health academicians do not understand it – though they write books and articles about it, teach it in classrooms and other settings, develop research proposals that are funded to evaluate it and consult to unsuspecting agencies about how to do it. As the acknowledged achievers of the summit of educational and intellectual prowess (they are, after all, ‘professors’ at universities and colleges), they have the credibility, recognition and prestige to be listened to, read and believed by many people. Unfortunately, as I saw again this week, when it comes to the topic of social marketing it is ‘consumer beware!’
I just finished reading the chapter on social marketing in the 4th edition of Health Behavior and Health Education edited by Karen Glanz, Barbara Rimer and K. Viswanath. This book is said to be, by C. Tracey Orleans of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, …the preeminent text and indispensable reference for our field…the first book we reach for to help us think about the foundations on which to design an intervention or research plan, inform a systematic evidence review, write or review an article or grant application, plan a course or presentation, and consult with other practitioners or researchers… (Foreword, p. XV). Quite an endorsement and I have no reason to suspect its validity. Indeed, all the more so to expect high quality and accurate work – something on the order of Wikipedia perhaps?
The chapter on social marketing is written by people I know. They are acknowledged health communication experts at the Center for Communication Programs at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. And they approach the subject as health communication people, not as social marketers, to the point of labeling a key section as The Role of Social Marketing Within A Strategic Communication Framework. I have said before how editors and peer reviewers need to gently, or not so gently, correct authors of papers who use the term ‘social marketing’ to refer to an intervention that is clearly focused on only 1P – promotion or communication. In a textbook for the field, I wish the editors of this book had thought about that responsibility a little longer rather than summarize the chapter as ‘a fresh look at social marketing…[that] emphasize[s] how social marketing can be applied within a strategic communication framework' (p.513). Maybe then other editors and peer reviewers would have a clue as to what social marketing is when they reached for this ‘indispensable reference book.’The shirking of responsibility is what irks me. The authors are certainly entitled to their view of social marketing as a tool that improves their strategic communication programs, but including it in a book as described by Tracey Orleans makes it obvious how and why social marketing becomes misunderstood among students, researchers and practitioners. It is the diffusion of a slanted perspective (OK, a different one) to an unsuspecting reader in the absence of anything resembling a true north – an approach similar to asking (and accepting) a Jungian to author a chapter on Freud’s theory for a book on personality theories for psychiatrists, an AIDS denialist to write a chapter about HIV prevention in southern Africa for health care professionals or an advertising person to write a marketing chapter for a graduate business text (or how about if Julia Child had written an Italian cookbook then?).
Let’s go to the quotes (and compare them to the list I started off with):
Not only is commercial marketing…a highly sophisticated and complex undertaking…it is also highly expensive (albeit not always successful; p.435). I call that classical conditioning – or guilt by association. Every time we link social marketing to commercial marketing principles and techniques – INSTEAD OF marketing principles – we do the same thing and undermine our credibility, perpetuate myths about planning and expense (despite what Reynolds Wrap is able to achieve on relatively small marketing budgets) and end-up in a conversation about lousy and deceptive marketing practices rather than creating more effective and efficient social change programs that deliver relevant and useful value to people’s lives. And do not think that ‘commercial’ marketers are not watching and learning from their nonprofit and public sector colleagues.
Careful reading of that last sentence shows the frame I prefer to use to talk about marketing practice: in the context of commercial (or private), public and nonprofit sectors [Note to the 5th P (politics) believers – it is the public sector context of many social marketing programs that drives the political aspects of them, not the people the programs are intended for]. This perspective then naturally leads to a larger discussion of whether the private sector can ‘do social marketing.’ My position is ‘of course’ – why not have a triple-win of social, personal and corporate (though I believe that the public sector and nonprofit/NGO sector agencies get some wins from success too)? See my post on Creative Capitalism to get a more in-depth look at some of the new thinking in this area.
After noting that debate over the definitions of social marketing will continue (p.437), the authors describe the five principles of social marketing as including (1) focusing on behavioral outcomes, (2) putting consumer’s benefits ahead of the ones of marketers, (3) maintaining an ecological perspective, (4) developing a strategic ‘marketing mix’ of communication elements according to the 4Ps and (5) using segmentation to identify how differences among consumers may affect their responses to the product or service being offered. While each of these deserve longer commentary, for here I will note:
1. Behavioral outcomes are important steps to achieving the population or social objectives, but social marketers do have larger and longer lasting goals in mind as well for which a social marketing framework is very useful.
2. Marketers’ benefits are no different than any other group of employees or professional service consultants who are hired to perform tasks and services for an organization; what they may have meant is that organizational goals are subservient to the ones of the audience – though I tend to disagree with this. I have not run across many funded projects where the donor has said “Whoops, we picked the wrong outcomes to focus on, clearly ones that are not priorities of the community. We need to go back and change them.” And fewer yet that fund an organization to do social marketing, or any type of intervention, with the mandate ‘discover what people are really passionate about changing and then work with them to do it!’ [If you have examples of these, I would really like to learn about them. Positive deviants are usually quite helpful in shifting the conversation.]
3. An ecological perspective is a theory-driven one. One principle that distinguishes the best social marketers, I believe, is an unrelenting understanding, empathy and advocacy of the perspective of our priority population or community that is not slanted by what the theory or research evidence does or does not tell us. Social marketers should get into debates with theorists and researchers – it is the latters’ reality versus the ones of people that will drive program design, delivery and evaluation (how do ‘we’ know it worked?).
4. A marketing mix has FOUR elements to create value for people. Not THREE (for the Easy, Fun and Popular crowd, which is also a theory) and certainly not ONE communication element. Period.
5. Segmentation is a bigger idea than determining a response to a product, service or behavioral offering. Market segmentation has become narrowly focused on the needs of advertising, which it serves mainly by populating commercials with characters that viewers can identify with – the marketing equivalent of central casting…The idea was to broaden the use of segmentation so that it could inform not just advertising but also product innovation, pricing, choice of distribution channels, and the like.
Again, I think the 4th point in particular continues to perpetuate the misunderstanding of the differences between marketing and communication. I understand that communication academicians want the whole world to see life as one long communication process and understandably then want to subsume marketing and everything else under its benign umbrella. However, that is only a POV. Others might suggest that life is just a series of exchanges, some of which are communications and others that involve products and services under different sets of circumstances (see the other 3Ps). And of course, biologists, mathematicians, economists and political theorists (to just name a few) have their own POV – as do Jungians, denialists, advertising executives and chefs.
As you can imagine, I have notes on every page of the chapter where I agree to disagree. But the final straw was when they introduced their cases for international and domestic (US) social marketing experiences by saying: In this section, we profile two health communication programs from a social marketing perspective. They might as well as used Freud.
And as for the second question, you could have seen it coming. Try going through the list of oddities now.
ReferenceStorey JD, Saffitz GB and Rimon JG. Social marketing. In K Glanz, BK Rimer & K Viswanath (Eds). Health behavior and health education: Theory, practice and research. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass, 2008.