What does social marketing, or your social marketing organization, stand for? I believe your answer to this question needs to be an integral part of any discussion we have in social marketing. My initial attempt to address this question is in the Values dimensions of the Transformative Social Marketing Model (TSM: Lefebvre, 2012). My decision to include a Values dimension in TSM was to signal that we need to integrate Values into what we do as marketers and change agents - as essential as our customer orientation, theories of change, marketing mix, co-creation processes, and whatever tools you use to design, implement and evaluate social marketing projects.
Why are values important to social marketing? Because, just as many other service-oriented disciplines, many of us believe it is vital to have ethical standards. Discerning the values that drive and underlie ethical standards is the beginning of that journey. There have been many discussions of ethics in social marketing (Andreasen, 2001), and every social marketing textbook devotes space to ethical issues. But these have been fragmentary attempts and the opinions of a few. With the establishment of the International Social Marketing Association and regional social marketing associations, now is a good time to start having an inclusive conversation about values and ethics.
Why do we need to have a conversation about values and ethics? Brenkert (2002) suggested that because social marketing involves social problems, it should have a moral theory that identifies the conditions under which people participate in social marketing programs, the information they would need to do so in an informed manner, the nature of the voice they should have regarding decisions affecting their welfare, and the role of scientific studies regarding human welfare. Social marketers, he adds, must be able to answer the question of whether their activities simply reflect the efforts of one group of people trying to impose its beliefs, standards or ways of living on other people. He notes:"If social marketing is to be distinctive, it must focus on the social problems of the people who have them, not the desires of those who hire them."
Many social marketers understand that establishing a code of ethics will enable the profession to establish a framework for professional behavior and responsibility. Our values and ethics will also serve as a vehicle for professional identity and a statement of our collective conscience about our moral obligations to people and society. As I mentioned, there are many examples and lists of proposed ethical standards in all social marketing texts; I am not going to pull them altogether here. Rather, I want to start at the beginning.
Underlying the establishment of professional ethics in many professional organizations is the articulation of the core principles, or values, on which ethical standards and responsibilities are based. At the session on Transformative Social Marketing at the World Social Marketing Conference in Toronto, I asked the approximately 150 participants which of three sets of values were most appealing or compelling to them as social marketers. Each set (shown below) was drawn from other professional organizations: the American Marketing Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Public Relations Society of America. I chose the AMA since it represents the core discipline of social marketing; PRSA as many practitioners and programs come from and reflect this perspective; and the NASW because its members are interested in changing society - another hallmark of the social marketing approach.
I read each of the sets of values to the session participants, and then asked the question: Which set of values is most closely aligned with what you believe are the values of social marketing? One of these sets of values was overwhelming voted by the group as the most reflective set of values (the other two may have had 10-12 votes in total; see Note at the bottom of the post for the key).
In the past, conversations I have listened in on and participated in about ethics and social marketing have often defaulted to the position that 'our' ethics should reflect the marketing ones. Practitioners from the PR world would suggest the PRSA as a possible model. But, when given a choice in which the origin of the values are omitted, and several options are shown, most social marketers (at least in my sample of convenience) overwhelmingly rejected the 'usual suspects' for ethics. In fact, I deliberately drew upon a profession with a decidedly 'social change' orientation to tap into that side of social marketers. Turns out that the NASW may be a bit closer to our 'truth.'
I don't believe the task is to decide which set of values and ethics we should appropriate from another discipline. The question for us is: what are the esential values we should embody in our marketing or social change activities? In the TSM model, I proposed that Dignity, Hope, Love and Trust should be anchors for what constitutes our discipline's value space.
Since then, I have come across several other proposals for values we could consider vital to the social marketing enterprise. Brenkert (2002) for example, after outlining a number of ethical challenges for social marketing, states that "Transparency should be a prime directive for social marketers." His comment is based on the presumption that respect for individuals is a fundamental value for social marketers (see Dignity), and as such, they should not misrepresent the means or ends for social or individual change. This transparency extends to identifying who is involved in social marketing activities and who is financing them. Transparency also includes the right of people to have a say in the process. That is, the people formerly known as 'the target audience' need to become collaborators or co-creators of social marketing programs.
Humility has come across my mind more often as I have been looking at social innovation and social entrepreneurship. We should not be overpromising what we can deliver; we also should not be thinking we deserve all the credit for our successes. Humility, compassion and courage are noted as values embedded in successful social change projects compiled by Golden-Biddle & Dutton (2012).
As much of social marketing practice happens in the public health arena, the values and beliefs for public health (pdf) from the American Public Health Asosciation can also provide some ideas:
- Humans have a right to the resources necessary for health
- Humans are inherently social and interdependent
- The effectiveness of institutions depends heavily on the public's trust
- Collaboration is a key element to public health
- People and their physical environment are interdependent
- Each person in a community should have an opportunity to contribute to public discourse
- Identifying and promoting the fundamental requirements for health in a community are of primary concern to public health
- Knowledge is important and powerful
- Science is the basis for much of our public health knowledge
- People are responsible to act on the basis of what they know
- Action is not based on information alone
A discussion of ethical issues in community interventions points out the importance of values around other important concerns such as the nature and form of consent (both individual and community), disclosure (see Transparency), competence and conflicts of interest. As we see more social marketers in public health, sustainability, and other social issues being engaged with communities, we have to consider how our ethics apply to larger social systems, not just to individuals and stakeholders (for example, clients, employers, funders).
This selection of sources and ideas is to stimulate your thinking about what our values are, where we might find other ideas, what values we share with other professional groups, and what makes social marketers unique (or are we really?). We can discuss and debate the marketing mix, social vs marketing perspectives on change, theories we should use, and the competencies social marketers should have. But perhaps we need to make time and space for a more fundamental discussion.
Schick & Schick (1989) subtitled an article about healthcare marketing: "Marketing begins with values." IMHO, this is especially true for social marketing.
Note: In the table, A = PRSA; 2 = NASW, and 3 = AMA. The NASW was the overwhelming winner.
Andreasen, A. (2001). Ethics in social marketing. Georgetown University Press: Washington, DC.
Brenkert, G. G. (2002). Ethical challenges of social marketing. Journal of Public Policy &
Golden-Biddle, K. & Dutton, J.E. (Eds: 2012). Using a positive lens to explore social change and organizations: building a theoretical and research foundation. Taylor and Francis: New York.
Lefebvre, R. C. (2012). Transformative social marketing: Co-creating the social marketing discipline and brand. Journal of Social Marketing; 2:118–129.
Schick, I.C. & Schick, T.A. (1989). In the market for ethics: Marketing begins with ethics. Health Progress; 70:72-76.
Image: Chris Devers