Social marketing: The timid blinking of a newborn baby

Back in the 1950s, sociologist Gerhart D. Wiebe had put forward the intriguing suggestion that marketing could possibly be crafted to match challenges which go beyond the promotion of goods and services for commercial purposes. His famous provocative musing was “Why can’t brotherhood be sold like soap?”

Not long after Wiebe’s groundbreaking paper appeared in an issue of The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1951, social marketing originated as a concept. Its first official literary mention dates back to the 1960s (Andreasen, 2003; Marshall et al, 2006) while many attribute the coinage of the term “social marketing” to Kotler and Zaltman in 1971 (Andreasen, 2003; Andreasen, 2006:90; Marshall et al, 2006), who, with their heavily-referenced contribution effectively “[launched] the discipline” of social marketing (Kotler & Lee, 2008:11).

You can download Kotler and Zaltman’s 1971 paper here.

Wiebe’s viewpoints regarding the application of marketing tools to the social sphere conserved their anonymity for a decade or so, until the social and economic stirrings of the 1960s and 1970s, where the war in Vietnam may have helped in directing society in the United States “to rethink [its] social obligations” (Andreasen, 2003:294).

Suddenly, people started to become more conscious of their social responsibility and commercial companies also increased their awareness regarding their obligations towards broader society.

Although a multitude of definitions have been forwarded on what exactly constitutes social marketing, I believe the following one by Bill Smith (2006, as cited in Kotler & Lee, 2008:7), captures the essence of the field most succinctly:

“Social marketing is a process for creating, communicating and delivering benefits that a target audience(s) wants in exchange for audience behaviour that benefits society without financial profit to the marketer”

A few of the most common uses of social marketing are related to “improving public health, preventing injuries, protecting the environment, and engendering community involvement” (Kotler, Roberto & Lee, 2002:12). Harvey (1999) points out that one of the very first instances where social marketing was put to effective use was in India, where, in 1964, a marketing effort was initiated with the aim of educating people on their family-planning responsibilities.

The campaign aimed for a wider distribution of Nirodh condoms, and it was soon followed by further similar campaigns in other countries.


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