The purpose of this essay is to analyse the development of social marketing from its origins in commercial marketing to being accepted as being its own specialist discipline. Social marketing adopts commercial marketing techniques to change the behaviour of the public to create social good (Bach, 2016). Similar to other academic fields, social marketing has developed both in terms of theory and practice (French, 2017). Therefore, the history of social marketing will be discussed including a consideration of various definitions following with a discussion on social marketing theory, the marketing mix and strategies for implementation using relevant examples. Further, this essay will also discuss the concept of Nudge and its effectiveness in social marketing illustrated through examples.

In the 1960s, academics began to consider whether the use of marketing principles could be extended from commercial activities to social issues (French and Gordon, 2019). The term social marketing however was first used by Kotler and Zaltman (1971, pg. 5) who offer the following definition:

“Social marketing is the design, implementation and control of programs calculated to influence the acceptability of social ideas and involving considerations of product planning, pricing, communication, distribution and marketing research”

Consequently, it was suggested that this approach would help facilitate social change by adopting the principles of marketing (Brace-Govan, 2015). Following the original definition offered by Kotler and Zaltman (1971), other academics have sought to offer definitions of social marketing (Dibb, 2014). Blair-Stevens and French (2005, pg. 4) use the term social marketing to refer to

a systematic application of marketing, alongside other concepts and techniques, to achieve specific behavioural goals, for a social good”.

This definition takes into account the inclusion of other marketing tools and techniques, or in other words non-traditional marketing methods, in social marketing (Fourali, 2016).

Although Kotler and Zaltman ’s research was published in the 1970s, it was not until the early 2000s that social marketing became a widely used and accepted concept (Huibregtsen et al, 2017). Therefore, social marketing involves the incorporation of commercial marketing techniques to drive social change (Chriss, 2015). However, as observed by Gruneklee et al (2016), the main objective of social marketing is a behavioural change as opposed to profit as with commercial marketing. It has been argued by scholars that social marketing has positively impacted a range of social issues such as physical health, alcohol/substance consumption and environmental issues (Bhat et al, 2019) (Helmig and Thaler, 2013).

At the time of its formation in the 1970s, the focus of social marketing was primarily on behaviour and social marketers did not initially concern themselves with attitudes (Nanda, 2013). As highlighted by Stewart (2014), it was not until the 21st century when social marketers realised that the adoption of social marketing could be extended beyond individual behaviour.

Moreover, social marketing has also broadened from its primary focus on public health to a range of social issues including transportation, environmental management, gambling and energy consumption (Gordon et al, 2016).

During the 1980s and 1990s, various scholars established several elements of social marketing including the concept of exchange, value creation, marketing mix and the NSMC benchmark criteria for effective social marketing campaigns (French and Gordon, 2019). Gordon (2011) asserts that these developments were greatly influenced by other academic disciplines and theories. Social marketing has since evolved to become its own unique discipline which can be distinguished from marketing and other social sciences (Basil et al, 2019).

Despite gaining recognition worldwide, social marketing has been and remains an underused concept (Huibregtsen et al, 2017). It was not until the 1990s when universities in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia began to offer academic courses in social marketing and hosting conferences and other events related to the discipline (Biroscack et al, 2019). Moreover, numerous textbooks and articles have been published on social marketing subsequently growing the volume of knowledge on the topic (Beheshti and Spais, 2016). However, Lee

(2019) points out that the number of universities offering courses in social marketing remains relatively small.

Disciplines will begin as a ‘community of practice’, or in other words a group of individuals who share a mutual concern or interest, before maturing. An important indication that a community of practice is developing is the formation of professional associations (Kassirer et al, 2019) (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015). The 2000s saw the formation of professional social marketing associations (Biroscack et al, 2019). The Australian Association for Social Marketing (AASM), which was launched in 2009 was one of the first recognised social marketing associations (AASM, 2020). Consequently, it can be said that the field of social marketing has grown to include professional associations and the development of courses in further education (Basil and Diaz-Meneses, 2019).

Furthermore, social marketing has received recognition worldwide from governments and global organisations such as the World Health Organisation (Gordon et al, 2016). Kenyon and Wood (2011) note that many national governments are undertaking social marketing activities to encourage citizens to make behavioural changes to avoid the challenges of using legislation. This allows organisations in the public sector to build campaigns based on the behaviours and attitudes of the target audience whilst avoiding the need to dictate information (Wood, 2011). Consequently, the advantages of social marketing have been recognised by governments who are adopting techniques to handle a range of public issues (Hussenöder et al, 2017),

Public Health England regularly adopts social marketing to encourage the public to change their behaviour and make more positive decisions (Mitchell and Selbie, 2017). In 2019, Public Health England launched ‘Change4Life’, a social marketing campaign aimed at encouraging families with young children to make healthy eating choices and carry out more exercise (Public Health England, 2020). Therefore, social marketing has been successfully used by governments to promote public policies and encourage citizens to change their behaviour (Hogg and Raftopoulou, 2010).

Social marketing involves the adoption of commercial marketing tools to deliver socially beneficial interventions aimed at enhancing society’s or individual’s quality of life (Wymer,

2015). Therefore, social marketing can be targeted to various audiences and situations in order to encourage changes in behaviour where there is a need for behaviour to be changed or influenced (Alnajar and Bach, 2016).

Social marketers, similarly to commercial marketing, will undertake activities to achieve a desired social change (Dibb, 2014). Many commercial marketing strategies will be applied to social marketing to allow it to succeed including the marketing mix, exchange theory, segmentation and evaluation (Lough and Pharr, 2012). Having an understanding of commercial marketing and social marketing concepts allows the development of realistic and meaningful solutions to social issues (University of Stirling, 2020).

A unique aspect of social marketing which differentiates this from other behavioural change tools is value exchange (Kotler and Lee, 2020). Previte et al (2011) describe value as incentives in the form of individual benefits for people to carry out desired behaviours leading to social change. McLean (2010) suggests that to facilitate exchange, social marketers should present something valuable to the target audience whilst also acknowledging the resources i.e time or money that must be invested to achieve the promised benefits. Consequently, social marketers should offer something desirable to the target audience and explain the advantages of the change (Angus et al, 2012).

Kubacki et al (2017) highlight the importance of understanding and managing competition of the target behaviour. Competition will create potential barriers to the target audience undertaking the desired behaviour (Schuster, 2015). Consequently, it is suggested that social marketers identify and understand the advantages of products offered by competition (Basil and Noble, 2012). Kotler and Lee (2008) propose three forms of competition that social marketers may face. Firstly, behaviours that may be preferred over that being promoted. Secondly, existing behaviours that the target audience already display. Finally, organisations or individuals who promote messages that oppose the desired behaviour (Kotler and Lee, 2008). Therefore, social marketers should consider possible competition that may prevent the target audience undertaking the desired behaviour change (NSMC, 2019).

Doner-Lotenberg et al (2011) note that segmentation and targeting are essential parts of social marketing. Shams (2018) highlights that segmentation is the dividing of the general public into a smaller target audience usually based on mutual characteristics. Kotler and Lee (2020) observed that commercial marketers will select segments that are likely to generate profitable sales whereas with social marketing, segments are chosen based on social problems and their ability to change.

To organise and implement a successful social marketing campaign it is imperative for social marketers to gain an understanding of the needs and attitudes of individuals within the segment (Nanda, 2013). Consequently, individuals within segments are likely to share specific characteristics such as geo-graphics, demographics, personal networks or behaviours (Cheng et al, 2010). Therefore, when designing an intervention, social marketers will analyse the behaviour in question, the target audience and potential barriers and drivers to change (Darzi et al, 2016).

The 4 Ps marketing mix from commercial marketing – product, price, place and promotion – was originally applied to social marketing by Kotler and Zaltman (1971) when introducing the discipline (Spotswood and Tapp, 2013). Shams (2018) notes that the 4 Ps marketing mix is a fundamental part of the planning and execution of a social marketing campaign as utilising these four elements effectively will help align the campaign with the needs and preferences of consumers. Therefore, the marketing mix is considered to be essential to developing a successful social marketing campaign (Nanda, 2013).

The 4 Ps of commercial marketing have been adapted to suit the needs and concepts of social marketing (Fourali, 2016). Product focuses on the behaviour change and can be tangible i.e a vaccination or intangible i.e an idea (Fourali, 2016). Fulkerson et al (2012) suggest product to be what is offered to the target audience to satisfy a need or want. Promotion is how the target audience will be reached (Dunleavy et al, 2018). This can refer to the communication involved in highlighting the benefits of the behaviour change including the content of the message and how it is delivered (Fourali, 2016). Price is the cost to individuals of making the behavioural change and any barriers they may face including financial costs or emotional barriers (Hastings, 2018). Place is the manner in which consumers are reached in order to provide information, education or encouragement (Borges and Tian, 2012). However, it is asserted by Edgar et al (2015) that there can be confusion regarding place with some individuals mistaking place as being where promotional information is displayed rather than how and where the target audience access the product.

Social marketers will decide on the 4 Ps and may test these with a group of individuals from the target audience (Spotswood and Tapp, 2013). Recently, the National Social Marketing Centre (2019) highlighted that social marketers must ensure that the elements of the social marketing mix are integrated effectively to ensure consistency and relevance. Therefore, it can be said that by applying commercial marketing tools and techniques, social marketing can create solutions to social issues which will subsequently result in social change (Dibb, 2014).

A fundamental aspect of social marketing is evaluating its effectiveness as this shows the implications of attempts to facilitate social change (Helmig and Thaler, 2018). The de-CIDES framework, as illustrated by Blair-Stevens and French (2010) sets out essential domains to be considered when influencing behaviour. This framework helps social marketers to make more effective decisions regarding the balance of interventions chosen (Blair-Stevens et al, 2010).

The table below offers an overview of the domains proposed by the de-CIDES Framework.

De-CIDES Framework
InformInform the target audience about relevant information and encourage the adoption of specific behaviours
EducateOffer information to generate awareness of the benefits of the desired behaviour and explain how individuals can achieve this
SupportProducts and services funded and created by the state and other groups to support and encourage collectively agreed social priorities
ControlUse of the law and regulations to reward and penalise the behaviour of individuals, businesses and markets to ensure social good
DesignCreation of an environment that supports and encourages both individuals and communities to adopt the desired behaviour

Source: Adapted from Blair-Stevens et al (2010) and Wu (2018)

Furthermore, elements of social marketing campaigns that are internet based can be monitored by analysing the number of views and visits to a particular website (Bondyra et al, 2018). Therefore, evaluating the impact of a social marketing campaign and considering the overall outcome is imperative as this can indicate whether the campaign is progressing as planned or if any adjustments are required (Shams, 2018).

Social marketing interventions follow a framework that sets out criteria often referred to as the ‘Social Marketing Benchmark Criteria’ (Pastrona et al, 2020). This sets out eight elements that should be included in a successful social marketing campaign (NSMC, 2020). The following table presents an overview of each benchmark.

Social Marketing Benchmark Criteria

Benchmark Overview  

Customer OrientationAn understanding of the target audience including their experiences, values, needs and characteristics
BehaviourConducting a thorough behavioural analysis to gain an accurate understanding of the problem behaviour and target audience
TheoryThe use of theory when designing a campaign and testing assumptions generated from theory
InsightGaining an understanding of how and what motivates the target audience and what is likely to influence them
ExchangeConsideration of how the target audience can be motivated to undertake the behaviour change and what needs to be offered in return
CompetitionAnalysis of competition to the behaviour change and how this can be minimised
SegmentationA target audience will be selected based on shared demographics to avoid a ‘blanket’ approach. The intervention will be designed to consider the needs and characteristics of the segment
Methods MixIdentification of the marketing mix and how this will be applied strategically.

Source – Adapted from: NSMC (2019) and Angus et al (2012)

Serrat (2017) highlights that encouraging a behavioural change in society is a complex issue thus will require a well-structured process. The NSMC Benchmark Framework illustrates the scope of social marketing and offers a strategic overview of the field (Dibbs, 2014). Consequently, the framework proposed by the NSMC (2019) offers a valuable method of assessing the extent to which an intervention aligns with social marketing and identifying additional opportunities to enhance the impact (Hennink-Kaminski et al, 2017).

As highlighted by Gordon and French (2019), there are criticisms of social marketing that are important to be acknowledged. As highlighted by Gordon et al (2016) social marketing is widely criticised as being unethical. This is a particular issue in cases of social marketing campaigns that are funded by industry due to these firms often being accused of encouraging the harmful behaviour in question (Brace-Govan, 2015). Therefore, Domegan and Hastings (2018) highlight the importance for social marketers to consider ethics due to their campaigns engaging with people and their lives. Scholars have also argued that social marketing lacks academic theory (Gordon et al, 2016). Therefore, since social marketing originated there has been confusion regarding its positioning due to the reliance on commercial marketing theory (Basil and Diaz-Meneses, 2019).

Further, as social marketing currently remains a developing field, it can be argued that there are several challenges faced by social marketers (Alnajar and Bach, 2016). The challenges of social marketing were recognised as early as the 1980s when academics questioned the relationship between commercial marketing and social marketing (Bloom and Novelli, 1981). As social marketing can easily be related to concepts of marketing, psychology and economics, it is difficult to separate the topic from other disciplines (Basil and Diaz-Meneses, 2019). Subsequently there is confusion regarding the nature and scope of social marketing both from within and outside the field (Spotswood and Tapp, 2013). On the other hand, Gordon et al (2016) argue that the rise of criticism and debate within the discipline is an indication of maturity and can generate opportunities for the development of new practices and alternatives.

A technique commonly utilised by social marketers is nudging, a concept which aims to influence people’s decisions using psychological insights instead of legislation (Ensor et al, 2016). The concept of nudging is informed by behavioural economics (Chriss, 2015). Several governments globally have formed departments dedicated to behavioural economics and nudging including the UK Government ‘s Behavioural Insights Team (Behavioural Insights Team, 2020) (Hummel and Maedche, 2017). Therefore, nudging has been used by both businesses and governments to influence the behaviour and choices of the public, consumers and employees by encouraging them to make more positive decisions (Singh, 2019).

The term nudge was first used by Sunstein and Thaler (2008, pg. 18) who offered the following definition:

“A nudge is any aspect of choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”.

Consequently, nudge allows information or choices to be purposefully presented to people in a particular manner in order to influence their behaviour (Cai, 2019).

Ashcroft et al (2014) take the view that the aim of nudging is to show that the better choice is more convenient or important. However, Steenhuis et al (2017) note that a fundamental aspect of nudging is it maintains consumer’s freedom of choice. Instead of imposing regulations or using force, nudging aims to influence individual’s behaviour through the use of human behavioural insights (Ensor et al, 2016).

Global technology organisation Google has adopted the concept of nudge to change the unhealthy eating habits of employees (Courtney, 2020). Google has made small changes to the layout of its cafeteria to ensure salad and fruit is the first thing employees see and that unhealthier options are hidden from view (Kuang, 2019). Steenhuis et al (2017) previously demonstrated the appropriateness of using a workplace cafeteria to target employee eating habits due to the likelihood of most employees choosing to dine there.

Another example of nudge is ‘The Piano Staircase’, an interactive musical staircase situated within the Odenplan metro station in Stockholm (Caltenco et al, 2014). A piano has been painted on the steps which aimed to encourage more commuters to use the stairs rather than the escalators (Courtney, 2020). When stepped on, each step will play a musical note thus music will be played when a commuter ascends or descends the staircase (Jain, 2019). It was found that 66% more people were persuaded to use the stairs after being attracted by the new interesting way of climbing the stairs (Caltenco et al, 2014). Therefore, it was possible to persuade people to change their behaviour and attitudes towards using the stairs by social influence and persuasive technology (Brombacher et al, 2013).

However, several scholars have challenged the effectiveness of nudge and its influence on individual’s behaviour (D’Adda et al, 2017). Sunstein (2017) argues that nudges may create confusion for the target audience and others may only have short term effects. Darzi et al (2016) agree and highlight the limited support for the use of nudge by governments to influence the public’s behaviour. Therefore, it is suggested that there is concern regarding the effectiveness of nudge especially when used in public policy (Kuehnhanss, 2018).


Since its origins in the 1970s, social marketing has evolved to become its own discipline which is used in both the public and private sector to facilitate social change and encourage individuals to lead a positive lifestyle. Social marketing has acquired some of the tools and techniques used in commercial marketing including the 4 Ps marketing mix however these have been adapted to align with the needs of social marketing.

It is clear, social marketing has developed into its own field with the founding of professional associations and conferences dedicated to the topic. Additionally, academic institutions are offering courses in social marketing and many textbooks on the subject have been published. On the other hand, it can be said that there are challenges facing social marketers as well as criticisms of the discipline.

Despite these criticisms and challenges, it is clear social marketing has been utilised by governments as an alternative to legislation when encouraging social change. This was shown by considering the campaigns launched by Public Health England whose social marketing campaigns have helped encourage families to make healthier eating choices. Moreover, it has been shown that an important element of social marketing is the concept of nudge which influences human behaviour by altering how different options are presented to consumers.

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