Social Marketing Academics vs. Practice

My first experience of social marketing was the my final year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Brighton. The more I learnt about the topic, the more interested I became, which ultimately lead to me going on to write my dissertation on the topic. Even after studying the topic under an academic lens a while, I still find social marketing a challenge to define, because it is so open to interpretation. As McAuley (2014) put it:

“The necessity here is to be comfortable with anyone who wants to have a go at defining social marketing.” -McAuley (Kotler & Lee, 2011)

This is what I believe was Kotler and Zaltman’s original intention with their 1971 definition of social marketing. This acceptance of anyone being welcome to take part in social marketing lead to the introduction the notion of ‘Behaviour change’ in the mix (Andreasen, 1994). This has been widely considered as a modernisation of the subject, building upon a theme which is now considered to be one of the core components within social marketing theory and practice.

“The adaptation of commercial marketing technologies to programs designed to influence the voluntary behavior of target audiences to improve their personal welfare and that of society of which they are a part.” – Andreasen (Kotler & Lee, 2011)

But has social marketing outgrown it’s marketing roots? Lee (2008) actually states that social marketing practitioners tend to try and distance themselves from the marketing discipline, even to the extent to rename their role of social marketers to ‘social change agents’. This view is seen to be focusing more on the social good element of the definition outlined by Kotler and Zaltman (1971). A reason for these ‘social change agents’ wishing to distance themselves from marketing is the influx of influence from other areas of academia, such as; Behavioural Economics and Psychology.

“The systematic approach of marketing, alongside other concepts and techniques, to achieve specific behavioural goals, for a social or public good.”-French and Blair-Stevens (Kotler & Lee, 2011)

It is worth noting that French and Blair-Stevens’ 2006 definition does suggest that social marketing can rely on other disciplines. Gummesson (1991) backs up this notion by introducing the idea of the ‘part-time marketer’, a practitioner who has entered the field from another discipline, for example; a health professional. This view paints social marketing as open to anyone wanting to contribute to a better social good. Wymer (2009) states this as one of social marketing’s strengths as it can result in creative problem solving, without the constraints of the marketing discipline.

I feel that this has however created a divide between social marketing academics and practitioners, as the ‘social change agents’ don’t feel the need to conform to the norms of marketing applications, they just tend to focus on the behaviour change element of the subject. It could be argued that what they are doing is not social marketing, as they are neglecting the whole marketing component of social marketing. However I disagree with this notion, instead following alongside with McAuley’s welcoming theme of inclusion within the topic. After all, the topic does revolve around making society better.

Thanks for reading y’all!

DominicTaylorDominic Taylor is studying MSc Marketing at University of Brighton following the Social Marketing pathway. He had previously written his dissertation around Social Marketing, asking the question: “Can Social Marketing be used to get young people to vote?” and has returned to analyse the results of the 2015 general election. Find him on LinkedIn.


Photo Credit: Robert Clemens


Andreasen, A., Lee, N. and Rothschild, M. (2008). Further Thoughts on the 2007 AMA Definition of Marketing and Its Implications for Social Marketing. Social Marketing Quarterly, 14(2), pp.101-104.

Gummesson, E. (1991). Marketing‐orientation Revisited: The Crucial Role of the Part‐time Marketer.European Journal of Marketing, 25(2), pp.60-75.

Kotler, P. and Lee, N. (2011). Social marketing. 4th ed. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, pp.7-8.

Wymer, W. (2010). Rethinking the boundaries of social marketing: Activism or advertising?. Journal of Business Research, 63(2), pp.99-103.



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