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Social marketing

  • Last modified date:
    14 November 2008
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Social Marketing: putting people at the heart of policy, communications and delivery to encourage behaviour change.

The term social marketing was first coined in the 1970s and refers to the application of marketing to the solution of social and health problems.  However, over the years there has been a growing perception that it is being confused with generic marketing especially recently with the advent of on line tools such as “social media” and “behavioural targeting”.

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Social marketing, like generic marketing, is not a theory in itself. Rather, it is a framework or structure that draws from many other bodies of knowledge such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and communications theory to understand how to influence people’s behaviour. Like generic marketing, social marketing offers a logical planning process involving consumer-oriented research, marketing analysis, market segmentation, objective setting and the identification of strategies and tactics. It is based on the voluntary exchange of costs and benefits between two or more parties. However, social marketing is more difficult than generic marketing. It involves changing intractable behaviours, in complex economic, social and political climates with often very limited resources.  

Furthermore, while, for generic marketing the ultimate goal is to meet shareholder objectives, for the social marketer the bottom line is to meet society’s desire to improve its people’s’ quality of life. This is a much more ambitious - and more blurred - bottom line.

Health-related social marketing is the systematic application of marketing concepts and approaches to achieve behavioural goals relevant to improving health and reducing health inequalities. The White Paper, Choosing Health sets out the importance of using a social marketing approach to encourage positive health behaviour.

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Social marketing takes lessons from commercial marketing and social sector marketing and applies them to the social and health sectors. It puts a detailed knowledge of consumer behavior at the very heart of the development of behaviour change interventions, campaigns or programmes. In the health sector its foundation is the recognition that simply giving people information and urging them to be healthy is not enough. We need to understand why people act as they do and therefore how best to support them in their life choices.

As well as merely giving information, it means supporting and encouraging people, fostering in individuals and communities the desire for good health that they already have. This core idea – starting from where people are and focusing on what help they need to make changes in behavior – means moving our approach to behavior change interventions from focusing only on awareness raising strategies to a social marketing approach.

A social marketing approach does not replace other measures. It is not a separate programme of work, it is part of the toolkit that can be used in a strategic way to inform the mix of intervention options, including regulatory action through legislation.

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The Department of Health is committed to developing a social marketing strategy for health to build public awareness and influence attitudes in order to deliver behaviour change in the long-term. In the White Paper, Choosing Health, we made a commitment to work across government and with other organisations in the voluntary and independent sector, through a strategy to bring together messages that raise awareness of health risks.  Using this information, people can then take action to improve their health - for example, by changing their diet, taking more exercise or seeking advice through telephone help lines, local health improvement services or clinics.   These activities are encouraged through communities, schools and workplaces.

Our aim is to equip people in the NHS, local authority and other public sectors with the skills and knowledge to use social marketing in everyday work, and to embed social marketing in to people’s consciousness. To achieve this we recognise that we must provide the necessary programme of support and training.

The National Social Marketing Centre (NSMC) is a strategic partnership between the Department of Health and the National Consumer Council. The NSMC was established to assist the  Department of Health to deliver its national health improvement social marketing  strategy and to deliver a work programme focused on building capacity and skills in social marketing.

In 2006, in response to Choosing Health, an independent report by the National Consumer Council : It’s Our Health,  reviewied the potential of social marketing to help promote health in the UK. . Its key recommendations were that DH needs to develop a programme that puts the consumer at the centre of all of our policy development and delivery work and that we develop our strategic expert commissioning role, concentrating our resources around delivering key public health messages through the wider stakeholder community.  It also recommended that DH reconfigure research and evaluation approaches to ensure all of our work can directly assess movement towards relevant behaviour goals.

The review’s recommendations formed the basis of the Department’s social marketing strategic framework, and puts this country at the forefront of social marketing practice in having the world’s first systematic approach to applying social marketing principles to health improvement.

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A specialist team has been set up within the Department of Health.  The Social Marketing and Health-related Behaviour Team has been established to support work to integrate a social marketing approach in key work streams.  For example:

  • Health Trainers
  • NHS LifeCheck
  • Health Literacy
  • Skilled for Health
  • Drug Misuse
  • Alcohol Misuse
  • Tobacco
  • Sexual Health
  • Nutrition
  • Physical activity
  • 5 A Day
  • Obesity
  • Health Inequalities
  • Healthy Schools and Children and Young People’s Public Health

The central driving concern is understanding and developing genuine insight into our target audience  – understanding their daily lives and routines. This helps shift attention beyond collecting interesting demographic or epidemiological material which is often ‘information dense’ to instead distilling this (much as commercial marketers do) to identify core ‘actionable insights’ that provide potential to inform the selection and adoption of appropriate intervention approaches.

The aim is to improve the behaviours and life style of the public to achieve a social good.  The problem is not the lack of information that people receive but the confusion of getting new 'facts' from all sides.  Messages about health are sometimes inconsistent or uncoordinated and out of step with the way people actually live their lives.

Success in developing demand for health is not enough on its own; people need to be able to make informed choices about what action to take.  It is not a matter for the government to dictate to the individual what they can and cannot consume, or what to do or what not to do.  Instead, it is a case of access to information that will show the options of adopting a healthy lifestyle and know the dangers of excess drinking, smoking, taking illegal drugs or having unsafe sex.

A major independent report 'It's our health', commissioned by DH via the National Consumer Council, is informing the development of the Social Marketing Strategy for Health for  England.  The summary report is available via the links below.

Ambitions for Health

Ambitions for Health sets out our formal response to the recommendations contained in It's Our Health.  This was an independent report commissioned jointly by the National Consumer Council (NCC) and the Department of Health (DH) as one of the commitments set out in the public health White Paper Choosing Health.  This new action plan provides a clear steer on next steps for social marketing in order to ensure we build on the increasing appetite for its wider adoption throughout public health delivery systems. 

Partnerships for Better Health

The Partnerships for Better Health report highlights the government's role in influencing non-statutory, commercial and not-for-profit sectors in securing public health goals.  Through the report, case studies and best practice tips we are encouraging the greater use of such partnerships for health at a local level.

Additional links

Ambitions for Health

Ambitions for Health sets out our formal response to the recommendations contained in It's Our Health.

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