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By Tenzing Wangchuk

“Now as you may have noticed, profits are way down this month. We need a gimmick to bring in customers. Do you lovers have any ideas?”- Mr Krabs

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, communications, distribution and marketing research" (Kotler and Zaltman 1971).

“Social marketing is an approach used to develop activities aimed at changing or maintaining people’s behaviour for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole”.(The National Social Marketing Centre)

In order to make sense of the current position of social marketing we need to take a look into 2 of its definitions.

The prior takes on a very commercial approach towards social marketing seeing it as a linear tool to market a product setting aside its main objective of ‘social welfare’. The latter seems to highlight the main objective of social marketing very well, which implements the pros of marketing in this day and age of technology as a positive tool for the society. Being an amalgamation of ideas derived both from commercial marketing and social sciences it has proven to be a good inexpensive tool to influence the behaviour of people when it is well designed and implemented. Due to a large accessible consumer base (thanks to the internet) these campaigns can provide a room to stir dialogue on various social issues which were previously ignored, not well represented or had biased opinions, opening up an entirely new field to work on and frequently being able to positively influence social issues in the entire world. But along with this angel on its right shoulder also sits a fiend (cons of social marketing and its growing influence) on its left shoulder who over the years has had its growing influence being felt as ripples in form of misleading ad campaigns on billboards, televisions, newspaper and on the internet preying on the ill-informed consumers. With the high rise in consumer activism and communities being sensitive and vocal towards social issues like sexism, racism and inequality the eminent rise in this political and social ‘wokeness’ among the consumers has invited marketers to understand that consumers now value social issues and for them to tap into this new “woke” market requires them to show responsibility on their end and try create a bond with its targeted audience with the medium of social issues. The new adopted social marketing works for most companies as a medium via which consumers feel they are buying a part of the “change” that these entities so market along with their products, the feeling that a simple product has helped fuel a social change (or in case of my local mall a rupee towards housing campaign for the homeless in that area, which ironically was caused by them for opening up a new “Fresh Tropical Fruits and Flavours”. Hypocrisy aside the avocados and cashew apple do blow the roof over my taste buds every time) reemphasizing what it means for them to be a good citizen. The fact of the matter is simply that social marketing is an extension of commercial marketing with very different goals and approaches. With social marketing solely focusing on bringing a positive influence on the society with ideas and messages of change whereas commercial marketing laying its emphasis on monetary gains with its line of physical products and services


The Brand Risk Relevance curve is a diagrammatic representation of the possible stances brand takes up on social issues and implement them while trying not to garner negative reaction and at the same time providing issues that are of relevance to the consumers .The curve introduced by Peter Horst in his book “Marketing in the #FakeNews Era: New Rules for a New Reality of Tribalism, Activism, and Loss of Trust” talks about 5 main points that a company can land itself in while going in for social marketing ranging from the very safe “ Head in the sand approach” to the “Position” where a business openly propagates and carries out actions on behalf of certain social issues.

(Refer to the figure above)

1) Head in the sand: In this approach the company remains completely neutral and does not try and create noise or stir up controversies in the market remaining as apolitical as possible. This method is suited for companies whose consumer base is unaffected by marketing or has simply no reward in taking up issues and creating a dialogue for itself. The main goals and objectives of the company is instilled within the framework. The drawback of remaining neutral is pretty obvious, the company loses its relevance in the market since it does not create a buzz around. Moreover remaining neutral also poses a problem when the company is suddenly under fire when it mismanages allegations relating to social issues. Take for example Uber in 2017 post Trumps announcement to sanction travel bans which led to the NYC taxi association to issue a stoppage of business on the JFK airport route as a form of protest but Uber decided to turn off surge pricing especially in the JFK route prompting major public backlash which led to people opting to its alternatives like Lyft or to tweets like #DeleteUber blaming the company for profiting off of the strike.

2) Values: This is the safest and the most conservative approach any company can take up on social issues where the company carefully lays out what their mission and goals are in the basic working framework of their organisation or for the public to read on their webpage while not trying to take a stand charged on them. The company here who take this approach mostly have a defined path they may adopt if faced with adversary.

3) Purpose: Purpose is when the companies adopt an uncontroversial and popular social issue and deliver it alongside their products in the brand advertisements. The companies highlight these issues but do not take a very hot and charged political stance on it and choose to send out positive messages to the viewers. Tata Tea’s advertising campaign with the words “Jaago Re” an appeal to the citizens of the country to be politically aware and to elect righteous leaders to fill the government. Over the years Tata tea has launched many such socially driven ad campaigns with the words “ Jago Re “ still being the main charm of their purpose based ad campaign

4) Issues: Issues present a somewhat riskier step by the companies presenting controversial issues without taking a side. Issues aims at stirring a bit it of buzz among the people with hopefully being able to place itself on the better side of the debate. The advantage of this tactic is that it leaves the company some room to play on if the campaign does lead to a bad reaction which takes the form of mostly apologizing to its audience which seems like the ethical thing to do but even the apology is targeted to generate more publicity. Kendall Jenner ending a clash between protestors and police back in 2017 with a Pepsi maybe a good example of an issue based social marketing campaign backfiring.

5) Position: Position consists of companies being very vocal on their views on particular issues which most of the time leads to them taking actions beyond their commercial nature by boycotting certain services, donating to charities and trusts. This strategy has the highest risk of causing backlash or pivoting the audience in favour of the brand. Very notable instances of “Position” in play is the case of Nike supporting Colin Kaepernick when he took to protest by kneeling before the NFL games during the American national anthem to protest police violence against black people. Nike was faced by immediate backlash upon the release of the campaign with hashtags #nikeboycott and #boycottnike gatherng trending in twitter. But Nike got what they really wanted from their ad campaign PUBLICITY. Bloomberg reported that just 10 days after the campaign launch, Nike reached its all-time high on the stock market and made 6 billion dollars.

Bath tile maker, Johnson Tiles launched the Red Ramp Project with the intent on highlighting the need to make public places disable-friendly in India. In this project a ramp was built on Kiri beach in Goa to allow access for the disabled people to the beach via the ramp. A good initiative with an even better execution.

A Double Edged Sword-

Social marketing can be perceived to be a double edged sword with many benefits to reap along with constant fear of causing an uproar among the public if the brand fails to deliver and address the issue at hand. "The utilization of marketing techniques with respect to social issues or ideas will help communicate causes in a more effective manner", is a statement that most participants consisting of ethics professor, social psychologist ,economic historians and marketing practitioners could agree upon- Gene R. Laczniak, Robertf. Lusch & Patrick.E. Murphy (Social Marketing: Its Ethical Dimensions 1979). Whereas, statements like, “Although ideas may be communicated more effectively with social marketing, those who have the dollars and power to use social marketing techniques may communicate none socially beneficial ideas."." Social marketing could ultimately operate as 'a form of thought control by the economically powerful”, were in fact supported upon by many participants in the research with only the market practitioners remaining positive to the overall idea and implementation of social marketing. By a fair degree the participants in the research also could agree upon the fact that social marketing can be possibly be used as a tool to create propaganda and manipulate social opinion of the masses with the power elites and those with the means always having a leverage on the minorities who do not have such resources at their disposal to counter them "The basic problem ethically-is the problem of power. For example, it might be OK for the Pentagon to use marketing campaigns to recruit personnel and attempt to shape the public’s attitudes regarding the size of the defence budget if groups opposed to these measures have equal access to marketing capability. The question is: What will marketers do to assure that .legitimate, impoverished minorities have equal access to marketing expertise?' With a common agreement that the actions of social marketers needs to be controlled but without the intervention of a government regulating body and the marketers themselves adopting a policy of remaining accountable for their actions the panel opted out of government regulation with concerns on hampering freedom of speech and rendering itself useless because of bureaucracy.

Despite having its fair share of concerns many brands will continue to raise social issues in their marketing strategy, but with (1) Proper stance on the issue, (2) Market research and (3) ‘Social Listening’ as stated by Anna Bredava in her article ‘Social issues and marketing: why brands want to cause controversy’, which entails carefully monitoring social media channels for mentions of your brand, competitors, and products to get an idea on how people feel about your brand and competitors. It leads to a brand being able to develop an effective marketing strategy and product development along with being able to quickly react too any negative or positive feedback that comes up, staying relevant in the eyes of the consumer. If executed well these measures can possibly lead a brand to create a new viral trend or a socially charged ad campaign or for the present scenario a salvageable meme template like the case of Elon Musk or Flex Tape.


Tenzing is a third year economics honors student at Hansraj college, University of Delhi.


Social Marketing: Its Ethical Dimensions- Gene R. Laczniak, Robertf. Lusch & Patrick.E .1979


Horst, P. (2019). Brand Risk-Relevance Curve


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