Social marketing: the next big wave

06 Jul 2011|Added Value

When asked recently for my point of view on today’s most innovative marketing initiatives, I couldn’t help but highlight that the best initiatives are increasingly coming from outside the for-profit world. This is, in some respects, not surprising as the world’s  “social marketers” take on board some of the most challenging behavioral questions of our times: human provoked illnesses from HIV to cancers to obesity and diabetes, risks to the world’s eco-systems, poverty… the list is long.

Responses to these challenges are not to be found in classic marketing textbooks. Convincing people to do something that goes against their instinctive desires: eating fewer sweets, stopping smoking, taking the time to put on a condom, sorting garbage… are not quite as easy as selling soap.

Whilst social marketing is not a new field, it has progressed recently with advances in psychology, neuroscience and sociology. And with environmental and social equity issues continuing to challenge governments and multinational brands alike, it’s a fascinating area. What passionate marketer isn’t eager to understand what really makes people tick?  Do the scare tactics used on the cigarette packs really work? Do the millions spent on educating people about balanced nutritional diets influence what they ultimately choose to eat?

The short answer is no. Research has shown that mass media efforts like the “5 a day” or “Act on CO2” campaigns in the UK or the “One ton Challenge” in Canada have generated strong awareness but little or no behavior change. Identifying the reasons for mitigated success doesn’t require rocket science: human nature is pleasure-seeking, lazy and habit driven. Education alone will rarely drive people to act differently. Often, they know already that they are not behaving in their best interest. Fear tactics are even less effective as they tend to generate cognitive dissonance and subconscious rejection of the intended message. Yet we bipeds can and do change…when the right factors are put in place to incite us to do so.

So what are those factors? After studying a cross section of social marketing campaigns with an emphasis on environmental benefits, we have identified 4 levers to change.

1. A life stage event
2. A timely reminder at the moment of imminent  choice
3. Social pressure tactics
4. Products and services that deliver primary benefits better

Let’s take a look at each of these factors in more detail:

1. Life Stage Events: An analysis of several studies on environmental innovation conducted by Geerken in 2009 showed that a key element  influencing the adoption of more environmental  behaviours is the change of context associated with life events:  disruptive moments in people’s lives ( a move, a new job, the birth of a first child, retirement etc) when they are more receptive to new ways of doing things. This represents the perfect window to instill new behaviours: more eco-friendly purchases, energy consumption choices  or forms of transport can be adopted that will thereafter become ingrained habits.

2. Timely reminders: Some behaviours are so ingrained that they require no thought at all. It is not that people make conscious choices to adopt these behaviors, they just do so as part of their routine; therefore reminding them about the right choice at the right time and place can render this choice explicit and facilitate new choices. The Belgian Ministry of Health has used this approach to positive effect via outdoor signage encouraging citizens to take the stairs vs the escalator or to walk to the next bus stop.

The same is true for energy consumption at home: A 10-country OECD report fresh off the press shows that around the world, when consumers get energy information provided via smart meters, they take more action to save energy.

3. Social norming tactics: can also be highly effective in getting people to do something differently. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all strongly influenced by what those around us are doing. In their best selling book “Nudge”, Thaler and Sunstein recount how we humans make choices based on social norms. Their tests have shown that a reference to the percentage of people who adopt a certain behavior like using a ventilator rather than air conditioning – with the added statement “the most popular choice in your neighborhood” can have a greater influence than economic incentives like “save $54 on your monthly electric bill”.

In general, people like to be part of a movement.  A derivative of this insight – when people pull together, they can change things – has been used in two recent campaigns from Unilever brands Lipton and Persil : “small cup/actions big difference”.


Another compelling example of the group effect is Avon’s  Army of Women. This initiative has set out to “enlist” an army of 1 million healthy women to donate time, bio-specimens and data to accelerate breast cancer research. Avon has wisely branded this initiative to evoke power in numbers and solidarity. At the end of 2010, they had already recruited 340,000 volunteers.

4. Social initiatives that highlight personal benefits: Last but not at all least, one way to get people to change is by making that change beneficial to them beyond the desired social benefit. That means designing new products and services that offer something more. After decades of failed green innovations that didn’t meet basic consumer expectations on core criteria, eco-innovators are finally getting the hang of things…making breakthrough green stuff seem normal or even better than normal.


People are buying compact toilet paper not because it is more sustainable, but because it lasts longer, takes up less room and requires less frequent trips to the market. They are spending a bit more for Method household cleaners because the bottles are great countertop accessories that also happen to have eco-friendly liquids inside.

A recent initiative by Brazilian state-owned water utility, Banco Cyan is getting consumers to reduce their water consumption by offering points for below average usage that can be redeemed for discounts at numerous participating partners. These financial, time-saving or status-based motivations are cumulated with the sustainable ones and thus have a much greater probability of driving consumers over the tipping point.

The passage of time will surely unveil other unique techniques to drive positive change. Even a small percentage of corporate marketing budgets dedicated to promoting products and services  that address some of the world’s pressing issues would have a great social impact while also helping to make their own businesses more sustainable.  Social marketing is an essential key to unlocking beneficial behaviors for the betterment of the individual and of society at large.

Written by Leslie Pascaud, Director, Added Value France

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