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Back in the '50s, Gerhard Wiebe asked the question "Why can't you sell brotherhood like you sell soap?" and thus the field of social marketing was born.* This question has formed the basis of wide-ranging efforts addressing issues like preventing youth smoking, promoting mammography, staving off bacterial infections from chitterlings, stopping domestic violence, encouraging physical activity and healthy eating habits, touting recycling and many more successful campaigns....

(By the way, I'm not including cause marketing here, which usually involves the purchase of commercial products, and benefits a partnering nonprofit.)
So, is the answer to Wiebe's question that brotherhood and soap are, indeed, pretty much equivalent products to be marketed? Well, yes and no.
Yes, in that we can think about healthy or pro-social behaviors as products we want people to adopt and use. Purchasing a commercial product is a behavior too. We can use the same marketing tools to promote colonoscopies as Coke uses to sell its colas.
But there are some key differences that social marketers run into that complicate the transfer of the business marketing model to selling health and social behaviors:

* Social marketing products are often things that people don't particularly want. What woman enjoys getting a mammogram or pap smear? (Okay, maybe there are some strange ladies out there, but I certainly don't!) Who wants to give up their favorite high-fat foods? Or have to get up from their comfortable sofa to go exercise? These products are not like the Apple iPhone that people can't wait to get.
* Social marketing products don't always have personal or immediate benefits. Preventing health or environmental problems in the future may not be compelling enough to motivate someone to take action now. It's a harder sell to get people to inconvenience themselves for something they may not ever see a benefit from. After all, if someone actually manages to prevent a case of cancer or heart disease twenty years from now, they will never know that fact. And by recycling, they may never benefit directly from that action, though society in general does.
* Intangible products pose communication challenges. How do you show traffic safety? Or volunteerism? Or racial tolerance? And if you are trying to prevent someone from engaging in a particular behavior, like smoking or child abuse, how do you convey that idea without portraying the behavior you don't want?
* The organization doing the marketing does not usually have any control over the actual product design. The product is what it is, and there's not much we can do about it besides try to position it in a favorable way. We can't change the fact that immunizations must be given as a shot or that cardiovascular exercise requires a certain level of physical exertion to be effective.
* Health issues are very private and may be difficult to talk about in public. This complicates audience research because people may be less willing to talk frankly about an issue in front of others. And societal mores can dictate how explicit the campaign itself can be, despite a desperate need for information. This reticence to speak about potentially embarrassing topics can limit the extent of word of mouth communication.

That said, it's not all hopeless. There are ways to get around some of these challenges:

* Be as specific as possible about what the behavior is that you want people to adopt. This will make it more concrete and easier to communicate. So, you don't just want to promote the abstract idea that people with disabilities have a lot to offer society, but encourage employers to hire people with disabilities in their own companies.
* Redefine what the product is to align with what is most important to your audience. To promote child car safety, the product is not the booster seat. The product is being a good parent. To prevent broken bones in the elderly, don't sell calcium supplements and safety modifications in their homes, but do promote the product of independence, which may be one of the things most valued in that age group.
* Show how adopting the product helps someone be the kind of person they aspire to be. So, while they may not benefit directly, their self-image gets bolstered. A person who fancies himself as socially responsible will do things like recycle, conserve energy and consider taking public transportation to work. Someone who thinks of herself as in control of her own fate will schedule a skin check with the dermatologist and an annual exam with her gynecologist.

People who are working in commercial marketing often ask me how they can switch over to social marketing because they are not feeling fulfilled by selling soap and cola. If you are a marketer, you probably already have the basic skills you need to work on health and social issues, but it does require a mental adjustment to understand the unique challenges these sorts of products pose. The world definitely needs more social marketers - offer your services to a nonprofit and put your expertise toward making change for good!
*Contrary to recent popular perception, the term social marketing actually refers to a well-established field that uses marketing techniques to bring about health or social change. It's often used incorrectly to refer to approaches using social media marketing, social network marketing or other Web 2.0-enabled forms of marketing.

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Nedra Kline Weinreich is the president and founder of the social marketing firm Weinreich Communications ( and the author of Hands-On Social Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide. Reach her at