Why Environmental Social Marketing is 10 Years Behind (and how to fix it)

I may be a marketing student now, but before that I was at the University of Waterloo in the Faculty of Environment. Therefore, when reviewing the history of social marketing, it was interesting to view it through a “green lens” and see that in fact, environmental social marketing (or ESM as I will now call it) is definitely not as popular as health social marketing (HSM). This year, 45 years have passed since Kotler and Zaltman coined the term social marketing, and in that time, the majority of growth in the field has been centred on individual health interventions. The field of social marketing has been established in a public health paradigm and considerations for environmental social marketing (ESM) have been excluded from the discussion and the development of theories. As an avenue for environment related behaviour change, social marketing is under-utilized.



Photo by Marina Burity

Right from the beginning, we can see that social marketing is clearly focused on health. Andreasen (2003) gives a critical review of the original definition by Kotler and Zaltman and concludes that it causes confusion to health professionals, but not to any other individuals who might find social marketing a beneficial field. Despite coming from a background in marketing (Andreasen, 1995), Andreasen still moved into social marketing focusing on public health and forgetting, or possibly ignoring, other areas of social marketing.



Photo by MsSaraKelly

In 1981, two papers were released to review the field of social marketing in it’s first 10
years (Kotler & Fox, 1981; Bloom & Novelli, 1981). From these two reviews, it is clear that the focus was still very much on public health. In order to conduct a review of social marketing literature, Kotler & Fox used journals from the field of marketing and a few public health journals. Although Bloom & Novelli (1981) mention the potential use of social marketing for areas such as energy conservation, it is clear from the examples used throughout the paper that public health was clearly the dominant focus for the practice of social marketing. The rift between environmental and health social marketing was widened in 1988, when an article published by Craig Lefebvre and June Flora made the practice of social marketing more mainstream in the public health field (Lefebvre, 1996).



Photo by Paul Townsend

In the 1990s, Lefebvre (1996) advocates moving social marketing away from public health and into other fields, such as the environment. By the end of the 90s, nearly 30 years after the initial definition, the growth of social marketing in the environmental field took off. Just before the millennium, publishing of ESM journal articles began to grow significantly. Takahashi (2009) speculated that this surge was at least in part due to the introduction in of Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM) by Doug Mckenzie-Mohr, which was entirely focused on environmental initiatives. Mckenzie-Mohr (2000) explained that up to this point, environmental change had focused on communication in the hope that knowledge or financial incentives were enough to change behaviour. When comparing this to the development of HSM, the practice of ESM has developed to the point that HSM was in the 1970s or early 1980s, putting it about 20-30 years behind. By introducing CBSM, Mckenzie-Mohr (2000) tried to bridge the gap between practitioners and academics, and in this case he identifies environmental psychologists as the academics for ESM.


90s (2)

Photo by Victor

By 2009, there is more published in the field of ESM and Takahashi conducts a review of
the literature by taking articles from both social marketing journals and environmental psychology journals. However, even by the end of the 2000s much of this literature focuses on products, such as low-flow showerheads for water conservation, and the literature shows a clear preference towards energy & water conservation as well as recycling. Less tangible environmental initiatives such as rain gardens and wildlife conservation, are lacking in the literature (Takahashi, 2009). The adoption of exchange theory was used by HSM to overcome this issue back in the 1990s. Using this as a measurement of development, then it can be concluded that ESM is about 10-20 years behind HSM, which implies that although ESM is still behind, it is growing at a faster pace.

Why Has Social Marketing been so Health-Centric?

A possible explanation for the disparity between health and environmental social marketing is that the big names in social marketing are entrenched in the world of public health and although it is sometimes mentioned that social marketing can be used for the environment, the dominant school of thought and theory is based around HMS (Takahashi, 2009). Another explanation attributes the discrepancy between these two subjects to the nature of ESM itself (Peattie & Peattie, 2003). For instance, the benefits are not to the individual but to society as whole. The subject area is also more controversial than health, with some scepticism about the existence of climate change, as well as ethical issues about the balance between individual livelihood and societal benefits. Along these lines, it is much easier to show a link between behaviours and personal benefits in HSM than in ESM (Peattie & Peattie 2003). An intervention that tries to encourage individuals to give up cars and start biking will have negative effects on the on the auto industry, and benefits to the individuals in the form of reduced pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change is difficult to see. It is so hard for individuals to identify the benefits of environmentally friendly behaviours to themselves, that in some cases, outlining health benefits in the ESM messages can be more effective in changing behaviour (Asensio & Delmas, 2015).

Despite this growth in ESM, the field of ESM is still strikingly behind HSM in both theory and practice. In 2011 at the World Social Marketing Conference, 8% of presentations related to ESM. Two years later at the next conference in Toronto, this number had grown to 13% (Lynes et al., 2014). Takahashi (2009) suggests that using Andreasen’s scale, ESM is in the “Adolescent” stage, and still trying to find itself. Lynes et al. (2014) agrees that social marketing for the environment is still in it’s infancy, with CBSM as the model to guide the field.

Going Forward

It isn’t a contest, so generally that wouldn’t be a big deal, except that social marketing is a growing field, and if only health issues are taken into consideration, then social marketing may cease to be a tool that is effective for environmental change.  Social marketing has seen growth and success in the realm of public health, and in order to establish itself as the primary behaviour change tool to solve environmental threats, the field needs to expand research and build the practice of ESM. The fact that health has a paved the way can only be an advantage for ESM and there are many lessons that can be learned from the existing research in this field. If ESM is an adolescent, at least it has a big sibling to help guide it.


Alison Carlyle is an environmental enthusiast studying social marketing at the University of Brighton. Despite writing the word environment at least 929,384,847x in her life, she still has trouble each time: Environemtn. Environmnte. Environmetn. Follow her on Twitter or LinkIn with her.

Photo Credit: hjl


Andreasen, A. (1995) A Social Marketing Research Agenda for Consumer Behaviour Researchers, Advances in Consumer Research. [Online], Vol 20 (Issue 1). Available at <http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.brighton.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=83386212&site=ehost-live&gt;

Andreasen, A. (2003) The life trajectory of Social Marketing: Some implications, Marketing theory. [Online], Vol 3 (Issue 3). Available at <http://mtq.sagepub.com/content/3/3/293.abstract&gt;

Asensio, O. & Delmas, M. (2015) Nonprice Incentives and Energy Conservation. PNAS [Online] Available at <http://www.pnas.org/content/112/6/E510.full&gt&gt;

Bloom, P. and Novelli, W. (1981) Problems and Challenges in Social Marketing, Journal of Marketing. [Online], Vol 45 (Issue 2). Available at <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1251667&gt;

Fox, K. & Kotler, P. (1980) The Marketing of Social Causes: The First 10 Years, Journal of Marketing. [Online], Vol 44. Available at <http://doi.org/10.2307/1251226&gt;

LeFebvre, C. (1996) 25 Years of Social Marketing: Looking Back to the Future, Social Marketing Quarterly. [Online], Vol 3 (Issue 3). Available at < http://smq.sagepub.com/content/3/3-4/51.full.pdf&gt;

Lynes, J., Whitney, S., & Murray, D., (2014) Developing Benchmark Criteria for Assessing Community Based Social Marketing Programs: A look into Jack Johnson’s All At Once Campaign, Journal of Social Marketing. [Online], Vol 4 (Issue 2). Available at <http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/JSOCM-08-2013-0060&gt;

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2000) Promoting Sustainable Behaviour: An Introduction to Community Based Social Marketing, Journal of Social Issues. [Online], Vol 56 (Issue 3). Available at <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.brighton.ac.uk/resolve/doi?DOI=10.1111/0022-4537.00183&gt;

Peattie, S. & Peattie, K. (2003) Ready to Fly Solo? Reducing Social Marketing’s Dependence on Commercial Marketing Theory, Marketing Theory. [Online], Vol 3 (Issue 3). Available at <http://mtq.sagepub.com.ezproxy.brighton.ac.uk/content/3/3/365&gt;

Takahashi, B. (2009) Social Marketing for the Environment: An Assessment of Theory and Practice, Applied Environmental Education & Communication. [Online], Vol 8 (Issue 2). Available at <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15330150903135889&gt;

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