[Note: For the closing plenary session at the World Nonprofit and Social Marketing Conference a few weeks ago, I was asked to speak about the future of social marketing. The video of my presentation is now available; I thought that putting my comments in text would be helpful for many who don't have the access to watch 20 minutes of video. And it makes a nice touchpoint for people who want to pass the ideas along and discuss them some more. This is not a transcript, but is based on the notes I had for my slide presentation. You might want to download the slides before viewing the video as the camera does not pan to the screens. I entitled this post 'Co-creating the social marketing discipline and brand' to recognize (1) all social marketing stakeholders have a part to play in the evolution of social marketing, (2) the theory and empirical basis for our work - the discipline - needs to be updated, and (3) the practice of social marketing - our brand - should both drive and reflect the new ideas and transdisciplinary nature of our work (aka it's time to jump out of the silos). I look forward to many more conversations on the future of social marketing.]
In thinking about the future, I can't help but look back at what the field has become since I first wrote about it in 1988 (Social Marketing and Public Health Intervention, pdf). I see very little change in most of our core ideas such as audience segmentation, formative research, the marketing mix and a people-centered approach. Yes, there has been more discussion around ideas of competition, critical marketing, ethics and social media, but as I said in a blog post nearly 4 years ago, the field has essentially become an echo chamber. And while the world is changing all around us, especially the world of marketing, most of the thought, research and practice of social marketing is not. As I stated in the social marketing manifesto 'we have lost the soul of social marketing' - and to free that soul is going to take us all thinking a little harder about what we are doing here.
The Akan people of Ghana use the Adinkra symbol - one version of it shown here is of a bird with its head turned around taking an egg off its back. Sankofa represents the idea of taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge. So what I am suggesting is not that what we know about social marketing, or how we practice it, is necessarily all wrong. Rather, we should take those pieces that have proven themselves useful in both research and practice and add to them what we know from related fields in order to make positive progress in how we use marketing for social change.
As I look forward with social marketing, I bring a set of experiences over the past few years that color my view. Among these influences are the fields of transformative consumer research, design thinking and service design, the service-dominant logic approach in the academic marketing literature, my work with the use of social technologies to influence behavior and social change, and a shift to a perspective that is more rooted in social networks and social determinants of behavior and cultural change.
In my journey, several definitions of social marketing have caught my attention that represent different point of views and emphasize other elements of social marketing. Here are three examples I particularly like:
- Harnessing the power of markets and marketing to improve well-being and save lives.
- Ensure fair allocation and access to the means of maximizing well-being.
- Develop and enhance marketing systems that support consumer well-being.
What is intriguing to me is that none of these definitions mention individuals, behaviors, exchanges, marketing mixes or even social good. What they all share is a focus on markets and marketing systems. And I think that is a clue to our future progress: our definition of, and approach to, social marketing needs to expand. In that last sentence is a clue to our future. It is the answer to the question: what space do we operate in? Some commentators want to say social marketing operates in the marketing space… or public health… health communciation... or the environment… transportation… financial or math & science education. Others that it’s the behavior change space. Some want to say it’s the social change space. To a greater or lesser extent, I think each of these positions demonstrates a form of marketing myopia.
What I propose is a new conceptualization of social marketing that continues our commitment to making positive social progress, carries forward useful heuristics of what works, and adds to it changes in our understanding of what we do.
I suggest that social marketing is a planned approach to social innovation. That is, social marketing is the application of marketing principles to shape markets that are more effective, efficient, sustainable and just in advancing people's well-being and social welfare.
As the idea of markets may be new to social marketers who don't come from marketing backgrounds, let's dive into that idea a bit more. A traditional view of a market is any arrangement in which some people offer goods or services and others buy it (either for money, barter or some other method of exchange). For example, there is a market for shoes and clothes. There are markets for food, construction supplies, housing permits, legal services, and information. I suggest there are markets for behaviors and ideas. However, the notion of markets as places in which exchanges of products and services take place is shifting as marketing scholars suggest giving up the sacred cow of exchange theory as a seller-buyer model and the sacred script of the 4P's for a model more rooted in a customer, rather than producer, perspective - a service-dominant (S-D) logic. This S-D perspective views skills and knowledge (behaviors and ideas), rather than products, as the fundamental unit of exchange. The focus of social marketing becomes one of facilitating and supporting a process of co-creation of value in which people are seen as coproducers or collaborators rather than targets we attempt to exchange with. This viewpoint involves a much more participatory and dynamic learning process for both people we serve and social marketers. Indeed, I suggest that to judge successful social marketing programs, we must assess how we - the implementers, sponsors and partners of social marketing programs - change, not just the people we call audiences.
A marketing system supports the ability of markets to function and for participants to co-create value for each other. Markets need a range of other players to support the principal actors who are involved in an exchange or co-creation process. These supporting players include the private, nonprofit and government sectors of society as well as the formal membership organizations and informal networks that bind them together. In a marketing system, ALL players CHOOSE to participate - or not. Suggesting that a problem, or a solution, is the responsibility of one sector or another is to ignore the dynamic interrelationships that exist in the system. To develop intrasectoral and cross-sectoral partnerships, therefore, is an inherent part of shaping and adapting marketing systems to new ways of relating to each other as well as supporting and facilitating exchanges of skills and knowledge. Understanding the context of our work as occurring within a larger marketing system leads us to take a Total Market Approach as we identify the possible ways to solve the puzzles of public health, the environment and other social issues. And to those who argue, as some have done at this conference, that we should not engage with private companies and thus ignore a large portion of the marketing system, let me suggest that one cannot change the world without changing business. Social marketers need to open up their apertures beyond a focus on individuals to all of the actors in the marketing systems that determine who has access to what resources - at what costs and when.
How do we move out of the social marketing box we have placed ourselves in for so long? I suggest it is by first moving towards creating more permeable walls with many other disciplines that share our motives, values, interests and approach. An openness to new ideas will also occur as we embrace the transdisciplinary nature of marketing and the wicked problems we often tackle. And it also means thinking about what we do in new ways. Here I take a first look at what this looks and sounds like.
This 3-dimensional cube is meant to convey some structure to what we do and also acknowledge its complexity - yes, what we do is complicated, But most of us choose to engage with social marketing programs because of the challenges they pose to us - not because they're easy, fun and popular.
On the deep axis lies the Scope of what we do. We need to surrender the idea that we are in the individual behavior change business. Rather, we need to refocus on marketing programs as an exchange, and at the heart of that exchange is value co-creation. If we are not learning something from the people we serve and gaining value from working with them, then we are not doing social marketing; we should not be delighted by aiming persuasive messages at audiences or manipulating environments to guide people towards doing certain behaviors and not doing others (whether it be a nudge, a physical change in the environment or a policy). Co-creation also recognizes that our focus shouldn't just be about people we might call customers or participants, but also stakeholders and partners (people critical to success) with whom we must also actively engage with in developing customized, competitively compelling value propositions for people we formerly called the audience.
The other levels of the Scope dimension reflect three more levels of the social marketing approach: creating conversations, working in the context of communities and at its broadest level, focusing on changing the marketplace. As Doc Searls said over 10 years ago in The Cluetrain Manifesto, markets are conversations - that's what should make social media interesting to social marketers. Social media are not simply new communication tools; it is a fundamental shift in the dynamics of conversations enabled by new technologies. How can we use conversations to influence communities and marketplaces? With social media, not only is it happening everyday in the commercial marketing world, but the events of the past few weeks in North Africa and the Middle East demonstrate it is shifting political marketplaces of ideas and behaviors as well.
Markets are also relationships, and the suggestion that we need to embrace relationship marketing more strongly in our efforts is certainly one I agree with. If we are creating exchanges with people and co-creating value for each other, we are setting the foundation for relationships. Indeed, one can argue that the two mutually support one another. If we continue to aim programs at targets, we may be missing our greatest opportunities and are neglecting the fundamental premise of a marketing approach.
Relationships form networks and networks form communities. And I focus on communities because we need to realize that mass communication programs will never be social marketing programs, and that most top-down programs will never be focused on exchanges. Communities provide the context to bring social marketing to scale utilizing co-creation, conversations, networks and by changing local market conditions.
Markets - whether they be local, regional, national or global - are the great frontier for social marketers, though we will certainly not be the first to tackle them. Social activists, social entrepreneurs and corporations are deeply involved in changing markets whether it be through social action, regulation, or leveraging or realigning market forces of supply and demand to name just a few strategies. To foster sustainable changes that support people's health and social well-being we must acknowledge and engage with the marketplaces of ideas and practices that are part of our social world no matter where we live. I am fond of this comment (by Doc Searls again) about a friend's response to The Cluetrain Manifesto: 'you guys defected from marketing and sided with markets against marketing.' What he meant was that it no longer about the 'power' of marketing strategies and tactics, but the power of the marketplace - consumers and communities who now dominate and dictate to brands. Markets are not creations of economists and Wall Street; they consist of human beings - not demographic sectors – and certainly not businesses. To say social marketers are customer-centered should translate into actions that seek to alter the conditions of the markets in which they live, work and play rather than trying to adjust people to their current living conditions. Social marketers need to work from the premise that we are in an intention economy now and approach markets with tools that mobilize citizen participation and demand that lead to engagement with and improvement of the mechanisms of supply - whether those tools are incentives, more efficient and just distributions systems or social and mobile technologies.
Along the horizontal axis are four key features of how social marketing programs might be Designed. The first feature is Honoring People - not just focused or centered on them. Honor means more; it demands from us to have empathy and insight into people's view of the puzzles we choose to solve together and how their possible solutions provide value and relevance to their needs, problems and dreams. Honor is a more complex issue than just 'respect.' Consumer researchers have written about the tensions that underlie whether 'at-risk consumers' should be conceptualized as having a vulnerability versus a strength, if we should encourage radical versus marginal change in our social marketing programs, whether targeting or non-targeting should be advocated, the relative costs and benefits of knowledge versus naiveté about risks, and the relative value of inclusion versus exclusion of such people. Each of these tensions goes to how we are Honoring people - it is by no means an easy set of issues to balance, and different groups and people and circumstances may lead to divergent answers and opinions. My point is that we need to be asking ourselves these types of questions, and not just become like a surgeon who walks into an operating room and starts a procedure without even knowing the patient's name. Then we can decide whether we are creating products, designing services, learning new behaviors or adopting new ideas. Those decisions should be the outcome of our conversations with people, not the excuse to start them in the first place.
Radiating Value builds on the notion of exchange as co-creating value. It is not about creating value 'for them,' but creating value for us as WE define and experience it. And WE is an inclusive term that can include many actors in the marketing system as well as stakeholders, partners and communities. Value needs to be defined and measured from multiple points of view, not just from a paternalistic one. Radiate gets to this inclusive dynamic more forcefully and visually then words like "create" or "build" value do.
The third element of the Design dimension is Engaging Service which I am anchoring in the ideas of service design and also S-D logic where all exchanges are services – active participation in relational exchanges that are useful, usable and desirable from the user's POV and effective, efficient and distinctive from the supplier’s POV. Drills are not important because they are tools, but because they make the holes in the walls for us to hang things (in a value proposition, not a tool but a service to help me make holes). In social marketing, providing people with information, products or tangible services is not the point; the question is how this information, these products and services can be used by individuals to add value to their own lives - whether it be meeting basic living needs, solving or preventing problems or moving them closer to their dreams for themselves, their families and other important social objects.
Enhancing Experiences is the promotional mix re-imagined as contributing to a sense of overall well-being. It is the antithesis of talking or telling stories to people. The experience becomes people engaged and connected with us, each other, organizations, communities and their lives in ways that are meaningful to them and allow for the learning and acquisition of behaviors that improve health, living conditions, the environment and society-at-large. The depth and richness of this Experience emerges as much from the marketplace and the physical environment people find themselves in as it does in the communication or promotion tools we use to engage with them on their terms.
The third dimension of the cube, the vertical axis, displays four Value Spaces that I also think are integral to social marketing programs. They are:
Dignity – Phil Harvey, the founder of Population Services International and a believer in the "social marketing is the subsidized sales and distribution of commodities to prevent diseases" model, based this 'sales' premise on his reaction to giving away for free needed supplies to thankful poor people: “I would never be comfortable providing help to people in ways that suggested they should express gratitude… I found such relationships demeaning, and yes, immoral.” We need at all times to respect people's dignity and the choices they make; otherwise we fail to both Honor them and have relationships with them for value creation.
Hope is believing in future possibilities. Our commitment should be to bring these possibilities into view in a compelling, accessible and relevant way. One of the guiding principles of design thinking that we need to imbue our social marketing with is the notion that Design ‘is making hope visible.’ The idea of abductive thinking, visualizing the future before creating an intervention, is remarkably absent in many of our projects (and not just social marketing ones, but throughout public health and environmental change). Yes, people may be able to offer ideas about the future in terms of numerical objectives or a 'a healthy world for all,' but to explicitly map it out and to share that with our co-creators as it would affect their daily lives I am finding to be perhaps the most important ingredient to motivate and engage all types of people in social change.
Love – Donald Calne has said that the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions. Love is among the most powerful and positive of emotions (and though I didn't note it at the time, the fact that the conference started off with a talk about the Role of Fear in Social Marketing programs makes this juxtaposition more poignant). This most powerful of emotional connections needs to be tapped by us to create 'lovemarks’ (as Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi calls them) - the next evolution in brands, whether they be for products, services or behaviors. How do we understand and then engage people in change out of love, not fear, and certainly not out of a rational weighing of pros and cons? I believe we start by devoting ourselves to creating deeper relationships with the people we serve and understanding what they love in their lives. Maybe then we could move towards designing healthier and more socially beneficial behaviors that are sustainable over the long term.
Trust – Trust is a larger idea than just a variable of interpersonal relationships or a characteristic of 'sources of messages.' It also extends to organizations and companies that support and sponsor social marketing activities. Richard Edelman talks about a 'trust triangle' that is based on the expectation for companies to act collaboratively to benefit society and not just shareholders. He says companies (and I would add NGOs and government agencies) must be transparent about their operations and profit engines and engage with people. We live in a world where trust is no longer a commodity that is acquired, but rather a value that we receive from the people we serve and our stakeholders. Without trust, social marketing risks slipping into coercion, propaganda and irrelevancy. Trust also underlies important concepts including social capital formation as well as the development of effective partnerships.
PATTERNS of Change --- In the middle of the cube are those wavy lines that represent the outcomes of social marketing programs. Their configuration is meant to suggest the patterns of change we should expect from and measure in social marketing programs. We should not limit ourselves to single indicators such as changes in rates of behavior, or to other individual level indicators such as changes in awareness, knowledge, physiological measures or morbidity and mortality. Rather, the patterns of change we should assess include changes in social determinants, social networks and relationships, community indicators, and policies; changes in organizational relationships and the physical environment; and changes among groups of people we serve including their overall sense of well-being, social capital, collective efficacy and equity (are we reducing disparities in health and access to health products and services). Our assessment of social marketing programs also has to measure how 'we' change as a consequence as well - whether it be in our understanding of people we serve, the relationships we have with them and the larger community, our relationships with partners and stakeholders, and our procedures and policies. The idea of 'patterns' is to shift us from thinking linearly about finding the 'solution' to a 'problem,' and to think more about how our offerings move us closer to solving the complex puzzles we are challenged by in our work.
The 3-D cube is a starting position in how to begin to operationalize our aspirations for social marketing. This presentation is a rough draft to which I hope many of you will think about, engage with, try out and talk about with your colleagues. It is my attempt to start turning 10 What-Ifs of Social Marketing into action: What if....
- We are co-creators of value
- Create places where people can play
- Design research to fit the puzzle and people
- Seek empathy and insight into people's motivation and values
- First assume that something might be wrong in people’s environment (or the marketplace)
- Focus on creating exchanges with people and stakeholders
- Measure how, when and how often we touched people in a variety of ways (both intended and unintended)
- Serve people
- Offer people new ways to solve problems, meet their needs and reach for their dreams
- Make sustainability as important as evaluation
and finally, through applying marketing to social issues, my hope is we can...
More Reading and References
Brown, T. & Wyatt, J. Design thinking for social innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2009.
Edelman Trust Barometer 2011.
Levine, R., Locke, C., Searls, D., Weinberger, D. & Jake, M. The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition.
Peattie, S. & Peattie, K.J. Ready to fly solo? Reducing social marketing’s dependence on commercial marketing theory. Marketing Theory, 2003; 3: 365-385.
Pechmann, C., Moore, E.S., Andreasen, A.R., Connell, P.M., Freeman, D., Gardner, M.P., Heisley, D., Lefebvre, R.C., Pirouz, D.M. & Soster, R.L. Navigating the central tensions in research on at-risk consumers: Challenges and opportunities. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 2011.
Phills, Jr, J.A., Deiglmeier, K. & Miller, D.T. Rediscovering social innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2008.
Service dominant logic - selected publications.
Why social marketing? [Interview with Richard Pollard on the Total Market Approach]