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Can the private sector ever champion social change?17th March 2010 by John Drummond
US insurance company Safeco helps people reduce the risk of bush fires
Business is increasingly seeking to encourage customers to act on social issues – recycle more, eat well, save energy, drink responsibly, use bags for life.
It's a discipline called corporate social marketing. It was first used as a term by the international marketing gurus Philip Kotler and Nancy Lee in 2004. They defined it as "a powerful strategy that uses marketing principles and techniques to foster behaviour change."
They saw it as building demand for products and services. My view is the commercial benefits are wider – increasing customer insight, improving customer loyalty, improving reputation and reducing the risk of regulatory intervention.
The idea of customer action on social issues is already widely accepted. EDF Energy's "Team Green Britain" initiative seeks to help people act on climate change.
Marks & Spencer in their March 2010 update on Plan A aim to help one million customers to create their own Plan A by 2015.
Sainsbury's is committed to "promoting healthy lifestyles". The language of social marketing is used by Unilever, Procter & Gamble and GSK.
However, corporate social marketing is in its infancy. In their article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kotler and Lee define it as "best of breed" because it should lead to measurable social and business benefits.
Most companies' campaigns fall short of this. US insurance company Safeco helps people reduce the risk of bush fires, the huge American home improvement retailer Home Depot encouraging water conservation, and from Crest toothpaste encouraging children in low income households to act to reduce the risk of cavities.
The challenge is that each example falls short of the criteria for social marketing currently applied in the public sector. There is no measurable behaviour change or social result. In fact, there is also little evidence presented of commercial benefits. The irony is that the public sector's approach to social marketing is borrowed from commercial marketing and yet, today, corporate social marketing now needs to learn from public sector social marketing.
What is successful corporate social marketing?
Successful social marketing focuses on behaviour, is based on real insight into the customer, understands what will motivate people to act, has a clear intervention where the initiative touches the customer and has a clear social result.
There are additional principles for corporate social marketing – the need to use corporate assets to help achieve the preferred behaviour and the need for authenticity. If the initiative appears insincere or fails to find the right balance between social benefit and commercial benefit, the credibility of the project could be holed below the water line.
There are emerging examples of successful corporate social marketing.The British Gas partnership with Help the Aged is a good example. Around 25,000 older people die in the UK each year linked to cold weather. For years now, British Gas has been encouraging older people to claim the benefits they are entitled to instead of turning off their heating. As a result over £25m has been claimed. This project has a behaviour goal and a measurable result.
Another example might be the "Ground Up" safety campaign from tool and equipment company Speedy. Their campaign engaged 1250 employees equipped with a safety "toolbox" to encourage customers to reduce the risks of working at height. Indeed, since the campaign, there has been a decline in fatalities from falls and Speedy's revenues have increased by 131% since the 2005 campaign launch. However, what may be a challenge is isolating the campaign as a significant factor in these changes.
What is now needed in the private sector is to move from flirting with customer action on social change, to adopting the same level of professionalism in social marketing as in mainstream marketing.
Because early practice is immature, there will be cynics. Some public sector champions of social marketing are already discounting the sincerity of corporate social marketing. They argue that the sole aim of business is profit. They ask how it is possible for the private sector ever to champion social change.
They fail to recognise that we cannot achieve real changes to personal health without retailers, sport or pharma companies. Nor can we achieve environmental change without a low-carbon economy. Our futures are inter-dependent. It is also a fact that the billions spent on public sector social change do not always go beyond awareness and lead to real behaviour change There is a journey to travel in both social marketing and corporate social marketing.
The private sector will act on customer behaviour. It is impossible for a financial services company to have a sustainable business without persuading customers to only borrow what they can afford to repay. It is impossible for energy companies to commit to sustainable energy supplies without helping customers save energy. It is impossible for retailers to commit to reduce food waste without persuading customers to buy what they need and eat what they buy.
The private sector can prove the cynics wrong and they will prove them wrong. But the standards are high. They need to act to improve their professionalism as they motivate customers to act and begin to adopt corporate social marketing as a discipline. In the meantime, there is a debate to be had. We would welcome all views on the future of corporate social marketing. This is the decade in which corporate social marketing comes of age. The time is now.