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The role of marketing in delivering social change

Due to the system qualities of large, wicked problems, a diverse range of perspectives are needed to deliver change
Plastic garbage and other waste on a beautiful tropical beach
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Due to the system qualities of large, wicked problems, a diverse range of perspectives are needed to deliver change.

Think back to the Foresight Obesity map, which showed how an individual who is overweight is influenced by the people, media, and the environment they live in. In social marketing this is called a system, and it is comprised of many people and organisations who are all interacting with each other over time.

Solving complex problems

Let’s consider poverty, education and nutrition. Evidence tells us that poverty is linked with education, the economy is linked with education and nutrition, and so the list goes on. It is hardly surprising then that wicked problems are difficult to solve.

Key reasons that make wicked problems hard to solve are:

  • incomplete or contradictory knowledge
  • the number of people and opinions involved
  • the economic cost
  • the interconnected nature of one problem with other problems

Social problems—such as inequality, human trafficking, and obesity—are wicked.

They can’t simply be fixed. But infrastructure, cultures, and individual people, can be changed. We need to know that people working on change can play a central role to reverse the trends for identified wicked problems.

The case of tobacco

Change agents can change the trajectory of a culture creating new and more desirable directions. For example, in Australia, tobacco smoking was cool in the 1950s and medical doctors even recommended smoking.

After understanding that smoking kills, cultural change was instigated by a change movement which led to policy changes and cuts in smoking rates. The outcome of more than 30 years of work by change practitioners are that today, in countries such as Australia, only 10% of the population smoke cigarettes .

Delivering change is not easy or quick, nor should one program be expected to work, in the longer term, in isolation. Complex problems require one or more strategies for each identified influence within a system.

Complex problems require interdisciplinary solutions

Wicked problems exist inside a system therefore a diverse range of perspectives is needed to deliver change. Interdisciplinary collaboration and, most importantly, perseverance are essential to deliver change over time.

Change should encompass a wide range of approaches, including education, training, enforcement, infrastructure, technology, urban planning, community development, health promotion, design, social marketing and many more fields.

Over time each field has evolved with its own unique theories, tools and techniques. This has caused a lack of connectedness between areas of expertise, meaning they are rarely combined. The change sector has been criticised as operating within silos, and our current operating structure may be a contributing factor towards an inability to deliver sustained changes for society.

By bringing these ‘silos’ together in our design processes social marketing can make an important contribution to delivering change. Social marketing is generally poorly understood, with its most powerful elements often overlooked.

Cycle path example

Let’s take a look at why programs and initiatives would benefit from social marketing input.

In a traditional design process civil engineers and urban planners, working in the transport sector, would design a cycle path to promote exercise. We would call this an expert led or top down design approach. Experts design a path for citizens to use without consulting the citizens. This may result in a path that does not meet user’s needs. User complaints may even result in the path having to be changed.

This top-down thinking contrasts with cycle-path projects that adopt a citizen focus. Here, the project would start with comprehensive citizen insight research and then, instead of being a ‘cycle-path’ project, it becomes a ‘how to get non-cyclists to cycle more’ project. The advantage of this approach is that we know the needs of the path users are met because they designed it. Experts can now work from the perspective of what users need, to deliver a path they can safely use.

Man and woman riding bikes

A marketing focus which centres cycle path users at the heart of the initial work for the project invites many people and organisations to contribute (multi-agency participation) by including:

  • workplace travel planners,
  • cycle buddy groups (an experienced cyclist offers to show new cyclists the safest/most attractive ways to work),
  • sport/leisure stakeholders,
  • and so many more.

A partnered approach involving experts, cycle path users and, importantly, people who don’t currently use cycle pathways results in a cycle path that more people use more often.

Application of marketing thinking ensures that the project meets the needs of more people and more organisations by turning thinking from a ‘building and installing a cycle path project’ to a ‘how to get more people to use the cycle path’ project.

Your task

Take a moment to search on the Internet. What factors lead to plastic washing up in waterways? Use the comments link below to tell us how you would try to start to design a project to reduce plastic waste.

© Griffith University
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Social Change: How Can Marketing Help?

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