Social marketing

[səʊʃ(ə)l mɑːkɪtɪŋ] Noun

The development and integration of marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviours that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good

Social marketing forms part of a broader package of behaviour change interventions. It can complement other interventions, such as policy changes to limit availability of tobacco to minors.

However, public health efforts have historically placed limited emphasis on social marketing as a tool to influence demand for harmful substances.

Why use social marketing for public health?


Changing demand (not just supply) is an essential element of most major public health interventions (e.g. uptake of health services, cessation of harmful behaviours).


Social marketing can complement ‘harder’ behaviour change measures such as regulatory changes, as well as reducing the need for them in an environment where they are unpopular, unethical or unpractical to implement.


Social marketing can be a cost-effective way of reaching large numbers of people, for example by using mass-media channels such as TV.

As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Influencing demand – not just supply – is an essential part of nearly every public health intervention.
Larissa Persons, Director of Strategy, SKY Girls

When is social marketing most effective?

When the wider environment is supportive: Social marketing is one of several levers that can influence behaviour, and is often most powerful when used as a complement to other mechanisms (e.g. taxation on a harmful product). Having a supportive legislative environment means that the social marketing intervention is not ‘swimming against the tide’, and that those who wish to change their behaviour will have the means and opportunity to do so (e.g. by accessing a cessation service).

When knowledge and education is not enough: Certain health decisions (for example, the decision to have unprotected sex or use tobacco) are motivated by a range of behavioural factors, such as social pressure or questions of identity, aspiration and tradition. In these cases, pure information-provision will not solve the problem alone, because, unlike social marketing, it does not also address the motivators at the root of the unhealthy behaviour.

When targeting prevention, not cure: Compared to initiatives that encourage uptake of a health service or cessation of an unhealthy behaviour, prevention initiatives generally do not require access to a particular service in order to succeed. Instead, they require that someone does not initiate a certain behaviour, which is more often a matter of personal decisions and beliefs.

Additional Resources

Demand creation for voluntary medical male circumcision in Zimbabwe

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Uniting supply and demand to end open defecation in India

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International Social Marketing Association

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STELa social marketing planning tool

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NSMC planning guide and toolkit

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