The Social Marketing Dilemma

What boundaries and limitations should social marketers set when developing marketing strategies? This is a question I am often asked and until recently my response would have been based on developing some form of educational campaign for the general public. I have since read an article by Walter Wymer (2011) which paints a different perspective, but before going through my findings it is worth emphasising that social marketing should not be confused with social media marketing.

So, about the article then: it states that social marketers are not being effective because they base their strategies on “influencing individuals” and ignore the wider environmental factors. In other words, these marketers have failed to develop strategies to address “root cause” problems. In addition to this, Wymer also believes that social marketers use their “mental models” to define the problem.

Now, I agree with his first point but I don’t understand his definition of the “mental model”.  Let’s just park that issue for a moment and look at the dilemma holistically: there are clearly two schools of thought. The first school believes that social marketing is about changing the behaviour of individuals (which was also my original assumptions). There is a great deal of research to back this theory ((Fox and Kotler, 1980; Helmig and Thaler, 2010 are just some examples).

The second school builds on the work of Parish (1995), People (1979) and Lalonde (1974): it includes the wider social and physical environment (see figure 1).  This is the school that Wymer promotes, although he believes that it is only relevant for health campaigns. I would argue that it could be used to tackle all social marketing issues .

Figure 1 The Causal factors of social problems (Wymer, 2011)

This new model allows the social marketer to introduce specific campaigns to target each factor. Table 1 illustrates the types of tactics that can be employed. 

Table 1 Social Marketing Campaigns by Category.

If we stop to reflect for a moment…. one might ask: “is this really a new model or an old concept repackaged?”  Is it not the case that marketers have always consider the wider macro implications when they develop their plans?  There is no doubt that they do (or should), although in most part it is only a consideration. In this case Wymer has implied that social marketers need to tackle the issues head on.

Let’s now go back and address Wymer’s belief that social marketers use their “mental models” to define the problem. As I mentioned earlier, I did not understand the concept but will make a stab at what I think he was saying. To do this I will need an example: Diagio (the drinks retailer responsible for the Guinness, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker brands) commissioned a campaign to promote the reduction of alcohol consumption amongst pregnant mothers by funding the training of midwives on the dangers of alcohol in pregnancy.

The first school of social marketers (the ones using their “mental models”) would say “job done” because they have succeeded in introducing a campaign for their target audience: ie there is now a training programme in place to support midwives educate mothers to be. The marketers have simply adhered to the brief they were given.

The second school would argue that in addition to the training programme greater taxes would need to be levied on alcohol to support the reduction in consumption. But wait a minute, Diagio manufacture and distribute alcohol: would they really agree to changes that could affect their sales?

What can we conclude? I don’t think it is really fair to say that social marketers use their “mental models” to define problems. The commissioners who ultimately pay for such programmes are the ones dictating the strategy. It is also worth noting that most social marketing campaigns are driven through the public sector and their funding streams are likely to be limited; large holistic campaigns will be costly and could take years. There is no doubt that the overriding holistic approach is best but when faced with limited funds, time and political pressures a simple targeted campaigned to change individuals behaviour may be the only option.



Fox, K.F.A. and Kotler, P. (1980), “The marketing of social causes: the first 10 years”, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 44, pp. 24-33.

Helmig, B. and Thaler, J. (2010), “On the effectiveness of social marketing – what do we really know?”, Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, Vol. 22 No. 4, pp. 264-87.

Lalonde, M. (1974), “A new perspective on the health of Canadians”, available at: www. hc-sc.gc. ca/hppb/phdd/pdf/perspective.pdf

Parish, S. (1995), “Health promotion rhetoric and reality”, in Bunton, R., Nettleton, S. and Burrows, R. (Eds), The Sociology of Health Promotion: Critical Analyses of Consumption, Lifestyle and Risk, Routledge, London, pp. 14-23.

People, H. (1979), “The surgeon general’s report on health promotion and disease prevention” (PHS) 79-55071, DHEW, Washington, DC.

Walter Wymer, (2011) “Developing more effective social marketing strategies”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 1 Iss: 1, pp.17 – 31

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Dr Alan Shaw is a Senior Lecturer and Marketing consultant focusing on a range of sectors. His main interests are in strategy development, social marketing, digital marketing, advertising, consumer behaviour and marketing application.
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