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Social Marketing’s Branding Dilemma

In 1971 Social Marketing was introduced as a concept by Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman in an article in the Journal of Marketing. If you are wondering how Social Marketing could have existed 33 years before Facebook, this blog post is for you and highlights the crux of the challenge. 

Social Marketing is the discipline of changing behaviors for the good of people and communities. It is built on a basis of behavioral science that shows that people do not change their behaviors simply because they become aware of an issue or because it is the “right thing to do.” Instead, people change their behaviors when the specific barriers to practicing the behavior are overcome by personally relevant benefits and motivators. Social Marketing has helped tackle problems around the world, including everything from condom use, vaccines, distracted driving, recycling, and energy efficiency, to pet adoptions and voter turnout. Fast forward to 2023 and there are seven global professional associations, more than 60 books, two academic journals and nine global conferences focused on social marketing. When it comes to helping people change behaviors for the good of society, Social Marketing is the most effective option.

You might be thinking, that doesn’t sound like a branding problem. The issue began right after the turn of the century when Social Media was born. Within just a few years, the term Social Media dominated the landscape and pushed Social Marketing out of the realms of pretty much any search engine. 79% of Social Marketing practitioners identify Social Marketing/Social Media confusion as a moderate to severe issue, according to a recent survey conducted by the International Association of Social Marketing (iSMA). Every Social Marketing conference I have attended always includes at least one or two people who thought they were coming to learn about Social Media (but hopefully leave inspired to use Social Marketing best practices in planning their next campaign). This dynamic has forced many in the industry to ask if Social Marketing needs a new name or brand.

I’ve thought about this a lot and served on an iSMA committee last year to look at this question. The conclusion, not so fast. While it might seem like a good idea on the surface, it would not be an easy task. Social Marketing has become integrated into many academic institutions, public sector agencies and communications professionals and now has 50 years of research, case studies and equity in the marketplace. On top of that, there is no singular brand owner of “Social Marketing.” Making a change would require that somehow everyone could magically agree and become aligned with a new name. And then, we would all have to start from scratch to build adoption of the new term while the essence of Social Marketing would not change — it would still use the Social Marketing planning process founded on audience research to develop strategies that inspire behavior change for sustainable, healthy, and equitable communities. 

So, let’s retire the debate about changing the name and instead continue the steady drumbeat of getting more organizations to adopt Social Marketing best practices in planning and implementing their behavior change campaigns. Staying on the path is the most efficient way to do more good in our communities.