Beyond behaviour change: social marketing and social change

Journal of Social Marketing

ISSN: 2042-6763

Publication date: 30 September 2014



Parker, L. (2014), "Beyond behaviour change: social marketing and social change", Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 4 No. 3.

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Beyond behaviour change: social marketing and social change

Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Social Marketing, Volume 4, Issue 3

Social marketing is contributing to a number of fields of research, and the successful application of marketing tools and techniques in social issues is well established. Gordon’s (2013) Special Edition of the Journal of Social Marketing (Volume 3, Issue 3) challenged social marketing researchers to consider their endeavours in terms of new and fresh approaches.

This issue challenges the social marketing domain to go beyond behaviour change and consider how social marketing can contribute to the fields of social innovation, social change, social advocacy and to develop macro- or meso-level social good (>Kotler, 2013; Lusch, 2013). Social marketers must work across the various levels to enhance social good, this means that they must focus on activities and programmes that go beyond behaviour change. Behaviour change contributes to and happens within the context of broader social change, while social change can manifest, demand, condition or inhibit desirable change in human behaviour.

The scope and nature of social marketing is growing around the world. In developed nations, “new issues” such as textile or technology disposal, and other issues related to a consumer culture are emerging as environmental threats in need of solutions. Older social marketing issues such as road safety, littering, reproductive health, pollution and food safety are being faced in the developing nations, as more and more people are lifted out of poverty in rapidly developing economies.

All of these local issues are impacting the world’s major problems such as the health of our shared marine environment, global warming and social inequities. In a world more interconnected and intervolved than ever before, we have the means through carefully planned social marketing to succeed with social change if we take a strategic and long-term view. In most areas threatening life on our planet, the nature of the problem may be “wicked” but the collective intelligence available to pose potential solutions is better than ever before. However, behavioural change related to issues faced by the world, societies or communities may not be successful if we simply focus our social marketing on the individual. Hence, there is a strong need to develop collaborative solutions via partnerships and programmes that address various levels of social marketing; lifting the social marketer’s perspective from the micro- to meso- and macro-level factors that exist in social change.

Social marketing, since its inception, has primarily been concerned with targeting the individual to influence behaviour change. As a discipline originally based on the success of its commercial marketing sibling, social marketing initiatives have been focusing mainly on translating desirable behaviour change into comprehensible, communicable and feasible tasks to be performed by individuals, groups or institutions. These tasks can either be targeted at changing a specific direct behaviour, or changing relevant intermediate behaviours to foster norm-based behaviour and social change. They might also be targeting the institutions that need to develop the behavioural infrastructure to foster the behaviour within the setting. That is, designing the physical, social and psychological facilitators for social change and overcoming these barriers along the way. Before initiating change, it is important to create infrastructure to enable change. That is, by considering the behavioural ecological environment in which behaviours occur and managing the environment in addition to the individuals. Changing attitudes to motivate people to behave is pointless if people have no opportunity or ability to undertake the desired behaviours.

From its inception the Journal has a tradition of challenging the intellectual foundations of the discipline of social marketing with a variety of thought-provoking papers such as Donovan (2011) “Social Marketing’s Mythunderstandings” and Lefebvre (2011) who presented an alternative view for social marketing as a field of practice, inspiring us to move beyond the Ps; however, many Ps there are in your textbook. Carvalho (2013) has questioned the use of rational choice models in social marketing and others have questioned the very foundations of what social marketing is and can achieve (French et al., 2011; Gordon, 2011; Hastings and Angus, 2011), as well as how it can be validly researched (Brennan et al., 2011).

This special issue aims to build on these earlier editions and to broaden our intellectual and disciplinary horizons to consider what might happen when we want to go “beyond” behaviour change. How do we, as marketing practitioners and researchers, take a discipline solidly founded on “free” choice models of individual behaviour and develop new ways of using social marketing techniques to foster social good?

To ensure that the high standards set by the Journal of Social Marketing were maintained, all submissions were desk-reviewed to ensure their relevance to the special issue and their academic rigour. Once this process had taken place, successful submissions were sent to at least three reviewers who undertook a blind review of the papers. The reviewers are to be commended for working with tight time frames and in wide ranging theoretical fields: beyond behaviour change being a theme that attracted people from across the globe and from many different disciplines.

The five specially selected articles included in this special issue, show off the diverse discipline that social marketing has become. The articles are both conceptual and empirical, and encapsulate some of society’s issues including healthy eating and over-consumption of alcohol. More broadly, the articles also focus on innovative and in some cases contentious approaches to tackle these and other social issues into the future. The world is changing and social marketers need to adapt to make the differences they desire. Marketer-centric strategies where strategy is lead and directed by the benevolent marketer will only go so far. The proliferation and more recent normalisation of social media demonstrate that the broader public want to be active participants and cannot be treated as passive recipients of a conventional behaviour change message. Social marketing is not social media of course, but social media is important in this modern era of social marketing. Social marketers must remain responsive. These articles provide a broad insight into the current state of play, and may inspire questions and debate.

The first article by Parsons and Kennedy is entitled “Social Engineering and Social Marketing: Why is One “Good” and the Other “bad”?”. It reviews and challenges the polarising classification of social marketing and social engineering as the respective protagonist and antagonist of social change outcomes. By pointing out that the fine line between social engineering and social marketing is drawn at the (lack of) adherence to existing social values, morals and beliefs of society, Parsons and Kennedy argue that social engineering is often embedded in social marketing. Recognition of this coexistence calls for a moral obligation from the state and the social marketer to seek active consultation with the individual before social change is implemented.

The second article is an empirical paper by Fry entitled “Rethinking Social Marketing: towards a sociality of consumption”. The article explores the transformational potential of social marketing using data from an online alcohol reduction community. Arguing that alcohol consumption is bound up in emotional, symbolic and social meanings, the paper recommends constructing responsible drinking as a distinct consumption entity rather than simply as oppositional to risky drinking. Further along this line, the scope of social marketing solutions can be extended to include contemporary marketing paradigms, such as value co-creation, sustainable marketing, relationship marketing, and consumer culture theory, among others.

The third article by Carins and Rundle-Thiele entitled “Fighting to eat healthfully: measurements of the military food environment” is a food environment study among military eating facilities to support healthy eating. The article contributes to this issue’s theme with the argument that social marketing targeting the surrounding environment that nurtures desirable behaviour can extend the scope of social marketing and create better outcomes. With the reasoning that changes on the behavioural environment will likely to result in behaviour change among the larger proportion of the population, including the unmotivated. The paper highlights the importance of upstream social marketing. Furthermore, environment social marketing also means increasing access to the required facilities among the motivated portion of the population, hence ensuring sustainable behaviour change.

The fourth article by Waters, Guidry and Saxton explores the use of social media to ignite social change. The article is entitled “Moving Social Marketing beyond Personal Change to Social Change: Strategically Using Twitter to Mobilize Supporters into Vocal Advocates”. By examining the use of Twitter among 50 different nonprofit organisations, the article recommends three best practices for social marketing, including engagement in the form of asking questions (not providing prepackaged solutions), creating reciprocity across all types of tweets (dialogue not monologue), and a combination of messages spreading on top of the commitment to create conversations between people. This also suggests that social marketing can move beyond behaviour change to enable organisational stakeholders to become vocal advocates of relevant causes, although there are inherent risks and discomfort in giving up control on change messages. From a social marketing perspective social media is the highest risk strategy, but one that holds promise for communities of practice to form and to be self-sustaining. The social marketer provides the impetus and the cause is taken up by the people and communities and becomes their own.

The final article by Gordon is entitled “A reflexive turn in social marketing: expanding the critical social marketing paradigm”. Following a critical review of the schools of thoughts in social marketing, Gordon undertakes a philosophical inquiry into the concept of reflexivity before landing at a framework for reflexivity in social marketing. Arguing that critical reflexivity engagement is crucial across social marketing’s various stakeholders for the discipline to mature, stay up-to-date and minimise unintended consequences. Far from being an academic indulgence, reflexivity has practical implications in the day-to-day operation of social marketing by encouraging participation and engagement across the various levels of macro-, meso- and micro-social marketing.

Linda Brennan and Lukas Parker


Brennan, L., Voros, J. and Brady, E. (2011), “Paradigms at play and implications for validity in social marketing research”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 1 No. 3, pp. 100-119.

Carvalho, H.C. and Mazzon, J.A. (2013), “Homo economicus and social marketing: questioning traditional models of behaviour”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 3 No. 2, p. 4.

Donovan, R. (2011), “Social marketing’s mythunderstandings”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 8-16.

French, J., Spotswood, F., Tapp, A. and Stead, M. (2011), “Some reasonable but uncomfortable questions about social marketing”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 2 No. 3, pp. 163-175.

Gordon, R. (2011), “Critical social marketing: definition, application and domain”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 1 No. 2, pp. 82-99.

Hastings, G. and Angus, K. (2011), “When is social marketing not social marketing?”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 45-53.

Kotler, P. (2013), “The larger context for social marketing”, paper presented at the World Social Marketing Conference.

Lefebvre, R.C. (2011), “An integrative model for social marketing”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 54-72.

Lusch, R.F. (2013), “Service-dominant logic: advancing social marketing”, paper presented at the World Social Marketing Conference.