Social Marketing Theory

Social marketing theory is a theory of mass communication that promotes socially valuable information and socially accepted behaviors. It tries to integrate marketing ideas, principles, tools, techniques and socially beneficial concepts to promote communication and benefit society. The theory emerged in 1970s when marketing techniques were realized to sell ideas, attitudes and behaviors rather than products and includes the concept of “Edutainment” (Education and Entertainment). The theory was proposed by Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman which is now being used by social and welfare organizations. Social marketing is not social media marketing.

[Related Reading: Effective Communication]

Social marketing for smoking health hazards

Concepts in Social Marketing Theory

Social Marketing Theory is a framework that is helpful in planning, designing, implementing and evaluating social campaigns with information sharing as its major objective. It uses creativity, rather than depending on public service announcements, like in the past for giving out information. Information is packaged and distributed following a plan so that maximum sharing and outcome is possible.

Social marketing tries to understand social and psychological factors which bring resistance to change in society. It increases acceptability, response and practice of any social idea for target group.Techniques of marketing like market segmentation, exchange theory and consumer research are used extensively. Social intervention is the main objective of social marketing.

There are two types of social marketing: Operational social marketing and strategic social marketing. Operational social marketing is used to change behavior, whereas strategic social marketing is used to form new policies and development strategies.

Components of Social Marketing

There are 4 major components of social marketing which is also used as techniques known as 4 Ps of social marketing. They are:


Target population is encouraged to buy or use socially needed products like family planning, clean drinking water, saving and credit organizations, nutritional foods, organic farming, etc. Sustainable products which benefit the society are the goal of social marketing. The product must have a place in the society. The product can be tangible like physical things or non-tangible like services and practices.


Price in social marketing can be monetary or non-monetary. Monetary price is the price to buy the product which might help the population. Non-monetary price is the psychological and social costs like changing a habit, time or effort.  If the price is minimum, the change is more profound.


The place is where the target population in need can be found. It is where the social marketing will be the most productive. It is the product distribution site, where the implemented changes will take place or the place where the product is available. The campaign is successful if the place is easily accessible.


The social marketing is done for the promotion of the product or habit. It is the way in which the information is provided. The tools and techniques used to make it effective are many, including advertisements, using charts, documentaries, etc. along with public relations, media advocacy, entertainment, etc. It takes creativity to promote in a better way.

Positioning is not sometimes taken as a component of social marketing but is used as a technique. It is an image of anything that is created by the campaign. It is the socio-psychological aspect of the product which is promoted with consumer needs, empirical evidences and objective setting. Other components are public, partnership, policy, etc. Public is the target audience as well as other stakeholders. Partnership between different similar agencies or the community also helps in social marketing. Similarly, change does not happen unless there is policy changes and other changes in the administrative levels. Another component is the funds that is needed to conduct the whole process of social marketing.

Major Features of Social Marketing Theory

Target audience analysis and segmentation

A particular group of population which is in most need of particular product or awareness must be first analyzed to have a social change. The audience is analyzed in preproduction as well as production phase. Similarly, a group also has various subgroups that must also be analyzed by breaking them down which is known as audience segmentation. Existing community agencies must be used. The first step to social marketing is identifying the target population.

Creates Awareness

Though the social marketing is not effective sometimes to change behavior patterns of people, at least they provide awareness. People get to know the alternatives that they can adopt so that they are benefited in the future. When different channels are used to create awareness, people come to know about new things. Awareness is the first step to change.

Increase Interest by Edutainment

The message in social marketing is creative and interesting. This way, the message is not forgotten for a long time easily. The message is reinforced repeatedly and the message is taken as credible by the target group. Education and entertainment is provided as a package. People pay attention as well as get informed at the same time. For example, a street drama is not easily forgotten. Images are used to increase interest and get attention.

Desired Result

The information should be so interesting and unforgettable, that people do not take the social marketing process to be a learning process but as entertainment. When this kind of information reaches the intended target group, desired outcome is achieved as the message gets ingrained in the brain of the audience.

Examples of Social Marketing Theory

Social marketing is used for promoting tangible things like oral contraceptives or just non tangible awareness like concept of family planning among a particular target group which is in need as a social campaign.

Other types of social marketing done are oral rehydration, immunizations, smoking health hazards, nutritious diet, use of helmet in driving, slow driving, following traffic rules, use of phones while driving, HIV and drug use, cardiovascular diseases, other communicable diseases, sanitation, environment pollution, corruption, etc.

In US, National High Blood Pressure Education Programs and Stanford University used the concept of social marketing effectively in 1980s to show the risks of cardiovascular problems. Similarly, another example is Victoria Cancer Council of Australia using social marketing to conduct anti-tobacco campaign in 1988.

Criticisms of Social Marketing Theory

  • Commercial marketing is sometimes done in the guise of social marketing.
  • Being creative can sometimes cause problems as the audience have to interpret the message themselves and the message is not very assertive.
  • Social marketing theory is not taken as a proper mass communication theory sometimes.