The Evolution of Social Marketing

Hello everyone! After an extended holiday break, the I Ctrl Shift team is back with new ideas for a new year. Personally I have been busy finishing school projects, which interestingly here in England (or at least at my Uni) are not due until you have begun the next semester. This led to a small amount of stress during my holiday Euro-trip, where I did no work on my papers. Luckily Europe is filled with delicious food, as well as wine and beer.


Litre of beer > school work

I did however get my papers handed in on time, along with my fellow social marketing colleagues. One of them was focused on social marketing, which asked us to “Critically evaluate the evolution of social marketing from Kotler and Zaltman’s 1971 definition through to modern-day theory and practice”. Such a broad question leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and of course each individual answered the question in a different way. In order to showcase the different perspectives, and to kick off 2016, I Ctrl Shift has decided to step back into the past this month and present some different views on this important question. So let’s start with a quick origin story of social marketing.

As a social marketing specialist in general marketing classes, one of the many things I find interesting is when professors call marketing a young field. If marketing is young, then social marketing is a baby. The idea of marketing social benefits was first introduced by Wiebe in the 1950s, when he famously asked:

“Why can’t you sell brotherhood like you sell soap?”.

-Wiebe, 1951

However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term social marketing was coined by Kotler and & Zaltman, and given a definition:

“Social Marketing is the design, implementation, and control of programs calculated to influence the acceptability of social ideas and involving considerations of product planning, pricing, communication, distribution and marketing research.”

-Kotler & Zaltman, 1971

Andreasen (2003) is a major critic of this original definition, arguing that the phrasing encourages a focus on education and awareness. This focus on education and awareness is still found today in practice, though the academic field of social marketing had developed a very clear focus on behaviour change as early as the 1980s. This focus on behaviour change using marketing principles is the key aspect of social marketing as it exists today.

Through the years, many individuals added new definitions as circumstances changed. Today, there is a unified definition of social marketing. Or at least it is endorsed by the International Social Marketing Association, the European Social Marketing Association and the Australian Association of Social Marketing:

Social Marketing seeks to develop and integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviours that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good.Social Marketing practice is guided by ethical principles. It seeks to integrate research, best practice, theory, audience and partnership insight, to inform the delivery of competition sensitive and segmented social change programmes that are effective, efficient, equitable and sustainable.

-ISMA, ESMA & AASM, 2013

However like many things in academia, there are still individuals who disagree with certain aspects of this definition. Social marketing is viewed differently by different people, with individuals divided on what it should include, and where it should go in the future. Jeff French (2015) recognizes that the history of social marketing has not been perfectly linear, but has been shaped by conflicting definitions and differing opinions. It has grown differently in different countries and within sub-fields.

This month, we will review the evolution of social marketing from different perspectives. We look at the interplay between social marketing academics and practice. As an environmental nerd, I will of course review the development of social marketing for environmental issues. Finally, we will end by looking towards the future, with the role of social media and technology in social marketing.



Alison Carlyle is an environmental enthusiast studying social marketing at the University of Brighton in England. She is currently looking for post-grad opportunities, so if you know of any reach out to her so she can figure out what country she should live in. Follow her on Twitter or LinkIn with her.

Photo Credit: Reavel


Andreasen, A. (2003) The life trajectory of Social Marketing: Some implications, Marketing theory. [Online], Vol 3 (Issue 3). Available at <;

French, J., (2015) The Importance of Social Marketing History, Social Marketing Quarterly. [Online], Vol 21 (Issue 4). Available at <;

Kotler, P. & Zaltman, G. (1971) Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change, Journal of Marketing. [Online], Vol 35. Available at <;

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