The many faces of social marketing

“Social Marketing seeks to develop and integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviour that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good.”

This consensus, stated in 2017 by the most accredited social marketing associations, sheds some light on many aspects of marketing which are often forgotten.

Normally, people think at marketing as a commercial tool, specifically adopted by private companies with the goal of boasting profits, sometimes even at the expenses of naïf consumers.

bambini in fila

Social Marketing (SM), however, shifts the attention to one potential of communication which is often left aside in business: the social and the personal good.

Differently from business marketing, SM is born by two “parents”: social sciences and marketing itself. This entails that it not only pursues a different principle compared to marketing, i.e. the facilitation of personal and social good, but it is additionally based on six core concepts, which make up its distinctive features.

The first of these is the setting of explicit social goals, which are usually defined as strategic behavioural objectives, entailing either a change of behaviour or a consolidation of its practices, which normally are the benchmark upon which to measure the effectiveness of the SM intervention.

The second concept is the citizen orientation and focus, which means that citizens (indeed, no longer customers) should be the hub upon which to retrieve problems and then develop solutions. It’s no longer the experts or literature that drive the situation analysis.

This will generate a tailored delivery of the Value Proposition through a specific SM Intervention Mix: indeed according to the data and insights gathered about the target audience, the approach can be either informative or educational, whenever the subject is positively oriented towards the goal; supportive, when the subject is convinced of the goal but still not acting; design, when the subject lacks a clear path to pursue the goal; or even coercive, when the subject is strongly resistant and some normative regulations can be additionally required.

Such a customised approach presupposes a clear audience segmentation, based not only on demographics but also on attitudes and behaviours, to make sure that the efforts of the intervention are focused on a very defined cluster, making it possible to optimise the budget.

Being that the budget in the public and in the third sector can be sometimes tight, it is necessary to correctly map competition, barriers and assets. Competition is in fact what competes with your offer diverting the targets’ attention and resources towards a different goal: it refers to both internal competition (psychological constrains) and to external competition (similar yet contrasting offers in the targets’ environment). Barriers are also to be attuned in order to facilitate the virtuous behaviours, while making it hard to pursue the vicious ones.

Finally, the last core concept SM relies on, refers to critical thinking, reflexivity and ethical practice. SM is a dynamic exercise that builds continually on best practices and draws from many disciplinary fields: not less important is the ethical aspect, which involves a constant sharing of information with the subjects, highlighting benefits and costs for them, to allow them to make an informed choice.

Examples of SM projects abound world-wide sometimes involving high stakes that require the participation of Governments, companies and citizens.

mani giovani

Popular issues addressed by SM interventions regard mainly health, environment, education or social welfare.

Respectively, just to name a few, some Governments have taken steps to diffuse healthier eating habits, to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics, to wash hands in poor areas, to promote blood donations and to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Some NGOs have made citizens aware of the environmental impact of some products, sometimes backed-up by private companies (as in the case of the apparel producer Patagonia, which actually promoted a form of societal marketing[1]), while some Governments have pushed toward a more sustainable mobility and some others have led anti-littering campaigns.

Some companies have favoured the empowerment of victims of gender violence, some Governments have enhanced the awareness of consumers protection, while some NGOs have tried to eradicate child marriage.

Finally, some other Governments have undergone to curb tax evasion, some to provide a safe ride when drunk, and some NGOs are still fighting against food waste (this example is visible in Italy thanks to the activity of Banco Alimentare).

However, SM projects do not have to be performed at national level.

Community based social marketing (CBSM) combines SM techniques with a specific reliance on community action and direct relationships as a way to promote good behaviours, conscious that the majority of decisions taken by an individual are not cognitively based, but rather socially.

uomo e donna al lavoro

Some very illuminating experiences can spring up directly in your neighbourhood as a couple of cases in the field of vending and in the field of education show.

Back to SM principle (“the facilitation of personal and social goods”), it is fair to say that the attainment of a goal in SM is much more difficult to assess compared to corporate marketing: this latter is often measured through economic added value and sales-related KPIs, while also intangibles can be quite accurately pondered; the social good, on the other side, can take sometimes longer to emerge and it could result from spurious phenomena, which are hard to track.

Nonetheless, the presence of the principle and the addressing of most of the core concepts are an effective way to assess the evidence of a SM action, while behavioural change/reinforcement can prove its effectiveness on field.



Michele Pennacchio



[1] Through its Worn Wear campaign, the California-based company incentivised the repair and re-use of clothes, instead of their replacement.


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