“It’s about marketing; no it’s about the social”

This is my presentation from the World Social Marketing Conference in Toronto on April 22, 2013.


The Big Debate – “It’s about marketing; no it’s about the social”

Speaking for “marketing” –
Nancy Lee, Social Marketing Services Inc., USA
Jim Mintz, The Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing (CEPSM), Canada

Speaking for “the social” –
Dr. Craig Lefebvre, Chief Maven, socialShifting
Dr. Christine Domegan, B. Comm, MBS, PhD, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the National University of Ireland, Galway

When I was first asked to speak about this topic my initial reaction was… are they kidding? Is this for real? I always believed that social marketing was about the marketing of social issues and that they are equally important but play different roles.

I remember when we first hooked up with Philip Kotler in the eighties when we were trying to bring social marketing to Health Canada. Kotler explained:   “we marketers need to think about applying marketing concepts to social problems”

No question Kotler and Zaltman came up with a BIG idea.

I thought that maybe I am out of touch and something had changed in the past few years and I was being left behind so I reviewed the latest definitions of social marketing.  I actually found 11,

What does it say about a discipline that has 11 definitions?

I looked at:

Lee/Rothschild/Smith, , Alan Andreasen, Jay Bernhardt , Rob Donovan, Jeff French, Gerard Hastings, Craig Lefebvre, Mike Newton-Ward, Sharyn Rundle-Thiele, Nedra Weinreich,  and Doug McKenzieMohr.

Except for Doug, Sharyn and Jeff all of the definitions refer in some way that social marketing is about utilizing a systematic planning process that applies marketing principles and techniques.

Also when you look at the people who have written most of the best-selling and best- known social marketing books, they tend to come from the field of marketing.

Now from time to time the term social marketing is misunderstood and increasingly confused with concepts like socialism and most recently social media.

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to do a presentation in Montreal and a politician who was visiting from France wanted to know if I was an expert in socialism marketing (I later found out that he was associated with the socialist government in France).

Today when you tell people you work in social marketing at least in North America, they usually say “Social marketing is that like Twitter and Facebook and stuff?”…, it’s likely that you spend a lot of your time explaining the terms social marketing’ and social media marketing, especially if you speak to people who don’t work in our field. It’s galling to social marketers that our beloved 40-year-old discipline is being confused with this upstart that’s rapidly taking over the world.

It is no wonder Wikipedia defines the term “social” as a fuzzy concept. But that certainly should not stop us from continuing to call what we do social marketing.

Social marketing is just one branch of marketing where the branch reflects the area of application for example sports marketing, b to b marketing, nfp marketing, public sector or government marketing, political marketing etc. According to Scott Brinker there are 131 different kinds of marketing.

However what makes social marketing different it is the marketing of social issues. As Rob Donovan states, the key point of difference between social marketing to all other branches of marketing is social marketers goals relate to the wellbeing of the community whereas for all others, the marketers goals relate to the wellbeing of the marketer (sales and profits, members and donations, etc.)

Increasingly, social marketing is being described as having “two parents”—a “social parent”, including social science and social policy approaches, and a “marketing parent”, including commercial and public sector marketing approaches.

With respect to the marketing component to social marketing …marketing makes the discipline of social marketing different than other approaches to behaviour change. The most fundamental principle underlying social marketing is the application of a customer orientation to understand barriers target audiences perceive to adopting the desired behavior and benefits they want and believe they can realize.

The social marketing process mirrors the process used for most other types of marketing. As someone who has taught both commercial, non-profit, public sector and social marketing the process we use is basically the same, now there is no question that the approach and the context is quite different but marketing after all is marketing.

Social marketing is built upon many of the traditional processes and principles of commercial marketing, especially Customer Orientation, Exchange Theory, Competition, Segmentation, the 4Ps, Relationships, and a Service Orientation.

Today, many social marketers seem to regard social marketing as consisting of educational (informative and/or persuasive) messages and seem to be unaware that the core concept of marketing resides in the exchange.

Mike Rothschild well known in the world of social marketing states that Social marketing has become a generic term that encompasses education and marketing but too often has been co-opted by education. Without a clear commitment to both the social and the marketing that is rooted in the philosophy of the exchange, the social marketing field will remain focused on education and communications according to Rothschild.  What he is inferring is why call something social marketing if there is no marketing.

Another guru in our field, Bill Smith laments that “the problem with the social marketing practice is clear; there is often little or no marketing.

So why are we having this debate today when we all know that social marketing is about the social and the marketing?  Or as Kotler put it to me 30 years ago, “we marketers need to think about applying marketing concepts to social problems”

Based on my experience as an educator, practioner and consultant in social marketing for the past 30 years, many social marketing managers today come from a public health or mass communications background, and few have had broad training or dare I say an understanding of marketing. Some actually think that marketing is the enemy.

So let’s agree today that social marketing has “two parents”—a “social parent”, and a “marketing parent”.







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