The centrality of exchange

The traditional economic exchange theory suggests that transactions take place when people perceive benefits greater, or at least equal to, any costs – financial or otherwise – that they may incur. This is also true of marketing, which has in exchange one of its most core concepts (Kotler & Zaltman, 1971; Kotler & Lee, 2006:161; Smith & Strand, 2008). The below diagram outlines the communication patterns in a situation of exchange.

Marketing is about an exchange (Smith & Strand, 2008:9)

Marketing is about an exchange (Smith & Strand, 2008:9)

In the paper that effectively launched social marketing on an academic level, Kotler & Zaltman (1971:8) emphasised the exchange concept, by stating that “the core idea of marketing lies in the exchange process”. The concept of exchange includes the understanding that customers “will behave in certain ways in exchange for benefits they hope to receive” (Smith & Strand, 2008:10). The facilitation of exchange is thus the marketplaces’ raison d’être. For this reason, it is “widely accepted” that exchange is equally central to social marketing as it is to commercial marketing (Peattie & Peattie, 2003:368). Hastings & Saren (2003:309) pinpoint the main differences with the following contribution:

“In commercial marketing, goods are exchanged for money – utilitarian exchange – whereas social marketing usually involves the mutual transfer of psychological, social or other intangible entities – symbolic exchange.”

Building on this research, a bold claim was made by Kotler & Lee (2008:13) who said that “social marketing is more difficult than commercial marketing”. This is because of the nature of social marketing, which often deals with scenarios in which behaviour change is not only optional, but could also lead to the target audience experiencing discomfort, uneasiness or extra costs.

It takes more research, energy and skill, they argue, to convince people to take shorter showers (thereby reducing pleasure), give blood (and risk being uncomfortable), volunteer (while possibly giving up leisure time), get an HIV test (thus risking hearing bad news) or buy recycled paper (and probably spending more in the process), among many other situations in which those heeding the advice of social markets may have considerable challenges to face. The most arduous aspect of social marketing, Kotler & Lee (2008:13) attest, rests on the fact that social marketing asks for “voluntary compliance” and that very often, no instant gratification exists for adopting the suggested behaviour.


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