The Biggest Mistake I ever made in Social Marketing

Question Time with “The Gurus” – “The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made…” Leading social marketers discuss their biggest social marketing mistakes and how you can learn from them. Followed by an interactive Q&A session.

Jim Mintz, The Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing (CEPSM), Canada
Professor Alan Andreasen, Professor of Marketing, Georgetown University, USA
Nancy Lee, Social Marketing Services Inc., USA
Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, McKenzie-Mohr & Associate

 Here is the keynote panel  presentation I made at the World Social Marketing Conference in Toronto on April 21, 2013

Like most of you I have made mistakes in my social marketing career. Fortunately none that were career destroying or caused a major initiative to fail.  I haven’t had a New Coke, or Ford Edsel, or how about that Creepy Burger King guy or launching a product called Ayds Diet Candy in the 1980’s when the AIDS crisis had just hit North America.

First, I need to give you some context. Our team at Health Canada started social marketing in the early eighties when social marketing was still a theoretical academic concept in Canada.  I believe we were the first major national organization to run a significant social marketing campaign in Canada. (Not including ParticipACTION which was a fabulous initiative but was not built initially on social marketing principles).

Our first major social marketing program was the Generation of Non-Smokers Campaign run in the early eighties.

“Generation of Non Smokers” in contrast to previous campaigns, was the “first truly integrated planned social marketing program” we ran at Health Canada. The first phase included a series of multimedia messages promoting a positive image for non-smokers. The campaign theme was A Broken Cigarette is a Little Freedom Gained and the goal was to produce a “generation of non-smoking Canadians”. The Generation program portrayed not smoking as an attractive alternative to help teens resist the pressure to smoke. It stressed the fact that smokers are in the minority in Canada. It spoke to teens in their own terms, never preaching and never saying, “don’t smoke”. The program had the full menu from a full ad campaign to peer counselling programs in schools, upstream regulations on smoking, community based programs, funding of existing and creation of new anti- smoking coalitions and groups, significant involvement with youth groups and programming across the country and the initiation of a monitoring program to measure youth tobacco use in Canada.

We continued with our social marketing efforts with our next campaign in the mid -eighties” with the successor to the Generation program which was “Break Free”. The campaign objectives were to persuade young people to maintain non-smoking attitude/ behaviour as they pass from childhood to adolescence; to position non-smoking as the normal and smoking as the abnormal activity and to establish that non-smoking is the socially acceptable behaviour and to influence group pressure.  Break Free used similar strategies that we had for the Generation program except we added a number of special promotions and activities, such as poster and lyric-writing contests. For the first time we used popular Canadian entertainers (No… Canadian sensation Justin Bieber was not around those days) – Luba and Candi – and sports heroes as role models for young people, and equated not smoking with such qualities as charisma, stardom, leadership, and having a positive self-concept.


In developing these programs we focused mostly on 2 p’s i.e. Promotion and Place/Distribution as we did not see the relevance of Product and Price in our social marketing initiative. It is hard to believe that we made this MISTAKE and in my view it was a major strategic error but we were relatively new to social marketing at the time. In addition, we published an article on our social marketing program and presented it at the 2nd World Congress on Tobacco in Tokyo (1988) where our paper stated that the focus on social marketing should be on 2 not 4 p’s . By the way if anyone ever comes across that paper please shred or burn it. 

Of course today I am one of the strongest advocates for the 4 P’s of social marketing and feel very strongly that while social marketing integrates many characteristics common to other forms of behavior change, one core principle remain truly unique to social marketing.  THE 4Ps OF MARKETING: Product, Place, Price and Promotion represent the fundamental building blocks of Social Marketing interventions as we certainly established at the last debate in Dublin, two years ago.

Yes from time to time social marketers will add additional p’s like People, Publics, Partnerships, Participation, Policy, Performance, Proposition, Process, Positioning, Philosophy, Perspective, Planning, Packaging etc. and the list goes on. The bottom line is the 4p’s are key  to reducing the barriers that make it difficult for people to behave as desired, and to increase the benefits that induce people to be more likely to behave.  The 4p’s are absolutely vital to influence optimal behaviour change.

And clearly for me that was my biggie in the mistake department.



10 Mistakes in Behavior Change (Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab)

  1. Relying on willpower for long-term change. Imagine willpower doesn’t exist. That’s step 1 to a better future.
  2. Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps. Seek tiny successes — one after another.
  3. Ignoring how environment shapes behavior. Change your context & you change your life.
  4. Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones. Focus on action, not avoidance.
  5. Blaming failures on lack of motivation. Solution: Make the behavior easier to do.
  6. Underestimating the power of triggers. No behavior happens without a trigger.
  7. Believing that information leads to action. We humans aren’t so rational.
  8. Focusing on abstract goals more than concrete behaviors. Abstract: Get in shape; Concrete: Walk 15 min. today.
  9. Seeking to change a behavior forever, not for a short time. A fixed period works better than “forever.”
  10. Assuming that behavior change is difficult. Behavior change is not so hard when you have the right process.

One Reply to “The Biggest Mistake I ever made in Social Marketing”

  1. Not all social marketing campaigns are effective everywhere. For example, anti-smoking campaigns such as World No Tobacco Day while being successful (in concert with government tobacco controls) in curbing the demand for tobacco products in North America and in parts of Europe, have been less effective in other parts of the world such as China, India and Russia.

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