Look beyond social marketing

This is a guest post by Adam Corner, a researcher based at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. His research focuses on the psychology of communicating climate change, and public attitudes to emerging energy technologies.

More than half a century ago, social psychologist G.D. Wiebe noted the effectiveness of radio advertisements for commercial products, and asked, “Why can’t you sell brotherhood like you sell soap?”

The marketing industry realised long ago that to promote a product successfully, you need to sell the idea behind it. Not only commercial advertisers took their cue from Wiebe’s proposition; social marketers have also applied this concept to achieve pro-social changes in attitudes and behaviour. Social marketing has now become the dominant force among organisations seeking to influence how people act. But can we rely on it?

Information alone won’t change behaviour
Social marketers recognised that simply providing people with information was insufficient to bring about changes in their behaviour, so they developed a new framework. First, the intended audience of a behaviour-change campaign must be understood and segmented, so each segment can be approached according to their attitudes or behaviour. In an anti-smoking campaign, this might involve identifying people who want to stop smoking, and those who don’t want to stop. Each is likely to respond differently to anti-smoking messages.

Any potential barriers to behaviour change must be identified and the context for the behaviour must be understood. A smoking cessation campaign is unlikely to influence people who regularly spend time where smoking is the norm, for example. Social marketing has the ability to pilot behaviour-change programmes with a small number of people first, and gives good opportunities for evaluating feedback and success.

It certainly sounds sensible, and social marketing has been successful for campaigns aimed at changing exercise habits, reducing alcohol consumption, stopping smoking and eliminating drug use – as well as promoting pro-environmental behaviour. A social marketing initiative by the Australian government named Travelsmart achieved an impressive 14% reduction in car use over an 18-month period.

Social Marketing gets results. So what’s the problem?
Partly, it depends on what you mean by ‘getting results’. Social marketing has been shown to achieve well-defined behavioural change on a piecemeal basis. But does it offer the right set of tools for catalysing the individual, social and political shifts necessary to make the transition to a low-carbon society?

Short-term success at the cost of long-term gain
One concern is that social marketing has no capacity for strategic oversight. What if the most effective way of promoting pro-environmental behaviour ‘A’ is to pursue a strategy that is detrimental to the achievement of long-term pro-environmental strategy ‘Z’? The principles of social marketing have no capacity to resolve this conflict, they are limited to maximising the success of the immediate behavioural programme.

This can lead to paradox, illustrated by the report Consumer power by Reg Platt and Simon Retallack (IPPR, 2009). This focused on ‘Now People’, members of the public who are high consuming and seek psychological rewards in status, fashion and success. The report recommended communicating with Now People in the way that resonated most strongly with them, by appealing to their wallets. But this is problematic as low carbon behaviours are by no means always low-cost. And, more importantly, Now People’s high consumption lifestyles are unsustainable. There are limits to the extent that a message can be tailored before its purpose is entirely subverted.

The dangers of segmentation
There are also limits to the usefulness of segmenting an audience. It’s true that people differ in their attitudes towards climate change, and that one-size-fits-all is unlikely to work as a communication strategy. But segmentation emphasises the differences between people, which causes problems for two reasons.

First, it does nothing to increase social capital and may even damage it. Social capital is the productive benefits of social relations, and is important for sustainable development and the effectiveness of environmental policies. Communities with higher levels of social capital are more likely to respond positively to pro-environmental policies and display pro-environmental behaviour, because they are already engaging in solving problems collectively and tend to trust each other more. Individualised messages might work well for individuals, but are they as powerful in the context of social interaction?

Second, splitting people into distinct segments may entrench attitudes that need to be changed in the future. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) might identify someone who claims to only engage in environmental behaviour to save money as a ‘waste watcher’, one of its seven audience segments. Message tailoring dictates that financial incentives should be used to encourage this person to adopt environmentally friendly behaviours. But this will only strengthen their tendency to save energy for financial reasons, and there are compelling arguments against promoting this type of attitude in the longer term.

A strategy for engaging people in preventing climate change needs to be about more than just social marketing. Environmental education, fostering ecological citizenship and involving people in social networks, rather than segmenting them as individuals, has far greater promise for the ambitious societal transformations needed to tackle climate change.

Fostering the right values
Psychological research shows that particular types of values (eg concern for others and respect for the environment) are associated with environmental behaviours, while others are not (eg materialism, personal power and ambition). Most people have a range of values. The task for environmental campaigns is not to dictate values to people, but to encourage the values that will lead to serious engagement with climate change and sustainability. If they don’t, they may undermine the very value base they seek to appeal to in the future.

Social marketing offers tools, not strategy
Social marketing gives a set of tools for making a process more efficient, it doesn’t tell you what the process should be. Given the scale of the climate change challenge and the broader issues of environmental sustainability, we should not limit our efforts in engaging the public on climate change to social marketing. It doesn’t match the scale of the challenge and, without the oversight of a more comprehensive strategy for engaging the public, there is a risk that social marketing for climate change will be counterproductive.

We can’t sell climate change like we sell soap for the simple reason that ‘selling’ climate change is not the aim of public engagement.

This article features in the latest edition of Inside Track.


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  • Martin Parkinson

    A pointer to a definition of “values” contra “attitudes” would be useful. Presumably there is a semi-technical definition of “values” which differs from the “everyday” usage.

    “Values” gets used as a sort of rhetorical blunderbuss by politicans, so I think the term as used here needs some clarification.

  • You say:

    What if the most effective way of promoting pro-environmental behaviour ‘A’ is to pursue a strategy that is detrimental to the achievement of long-term pro-environmental strategy ‘Z’?

    Can you give me an example and references of where this has actually happened? I’m writing an essay on social marketing, climate change and behaviour change. Many thanks!

    • Rebekah Phillips

      Hi Thomas,

      There are lots of examples of this- and it is a particularly live debate at the moment. Look up Tom Crompton’s common cause work, which argues that we should only promote action with the right values, opposed to work by Futerra and Global Cool who seek to promote actions for other reasons- and say it shouldn’t matter what reason people use (but then has the danger that if you for example promote jumper wearing in winter because it’s cool (in the aim of saving energy), you might actually promote increased consumption and more clothes being bought).

      We had a debate between Soli of Futerra and Tom of WWF in an issue of our quarterly magazine Inside Track from last Spring I think. Have a look at that too.


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