Dec 4, 2012

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Changing attitudes: the potential for marketing to achieve social good

David M. Russell

July 2009

Introduction

 

Since the early 1900s academics and practitioners have vigorously debated the role, definition and theory of marketing. This has occurred as marketing practice has flourished in ways not conceived a century ago. Whether this has been to society’s aggregate benefit could generate another century of debate and areas of controversy and disagreement have expanded proportionately. A distinguishing characteristic of marketing research and practice has been the tendency to continually broaden both definitional and applied boundaries. The popularity of marketing in both academic and commercial sectors has helped generate a very substantial body of work now available to underpin theoretical and research debate. Surprisingly, however, some theoreticians argue strenuously for a narrow definition of marketing How that can not be oxymoronic is a moot point. Many would see it as a Luddite approach which refuses to accept marketing’s pervasive role in, and influence upon, contemporary society. It also ignores the massive and dramatic transformation of society in the same timeframe.

 

Social marketing is a sub-field that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Programs under this banner are being applied increasingly to a diverse array of societal problems and achieving a modicum of success in ameliorating some of humankind’s most challenging difficulties. Broad-based promotional initiatives such as combating AIDS, fostering safe sexual practices, motor vehicle death and injury reduction, and obesity awareness are all classified as social marketing campaigns. This is, ostensibly, because they are concerned with changing behaviours. Campaigns which attempt to change attitudes, by contrast, are castigated and classified as anything but social marketing. Why? Surely the achievement of attitudinal change is a powerful underpinning for subsequent or contemporaneous behavioural change? Indeed, it can be argued that achieving attitudinal change is likely to be a precursor to longer-lasting and more-readily accepted behavioural change. Restrictive definitions of social marketing may appease academically-oriented purists but they are disenfranchising practitioners who wish to achieve beneficial societal change but find their work is ostracised definitionally because they use marketing techniques for social purposes but seek no specific behavioural change. The nett effect is to starve the practice of social marketing of a burgeoning array of willing adherents whose work is otherwise demeaned by being denied the imprimatur of a recognised discipline.

 

Place marketing is another sub-field that has achieved prominence globally over the past two decades as national, state and local governments explore its potential, primarily as an investment attraction mechanism. The core focus of most proponents of place marketing and city brands is to engender a competitive advantage over other places or cities. The literature reveals that theoretical evaluation lags behind practical implementation. The field is characterised by a paucity of theoretical definition which hinders the development of performance benchmarks. In turn, this acts as a de facto constraint on practical implementation because the parameters for gauging success are not generally agreed. Analysis of the literature reveals place marketing tends to be applied in a restrictive manner by generally targeting external audiences to the exclusion of internal consumers (residents). The opportunity to influence residents’ attitudes – and by so doing enhance the appeal being promulgated externally – is lost. The surrendered opportunity is to construct a positive community identity which has the potential to make local residents feel better about themselves and, through that, become positive ambassadors for their area and exponents of the brand. The potential for positive community attitudes to stimulate a reduction of anti-social and other negative behaviours such as domestic violence and vandalism – with consequent benefits for quality of life in communities generally – warrants exploration.

 

Social marketing techniques offer the potential to influence target-group attitudes and could be a powerful influence on city branding initiatives. Attitudinal change can be a vital precursor to the construction of community identity and the enhancement of community cohesion while also delivering socially desirable behavioural outcomes. Just as the broadened paradigm movement has stimulated theoretical and practical growth in the field of marketing, so can a similar flourishing achieve tangible progress in the sub-fields of social and place marketing.

 

 

 

A literature review

 

It is forty years since Kotler and Levy presciently stated: ‘marketing will either take on a broader social meaning or remain a narrowly defined business activity’ (1969, p. 10) but could they have imagined then that the ideological schisms dividing the discipline of marketing would remain as resolutely entrenched? Kotler and Levy admonished that marketing should have a consumer orientation instead of a product orientation and, if it did, it would enjoy a new lease on life and serve a higher social purpose. This stricture was based on their view that marketing was seen in two ways: as a means to sell, influence or persuade, or, to ‘sensitively serve and satisfy human needs’ (1969, p. 15). Their clarion call became known as the broadening marketing movement (or broadened paradigm) and it remains instrumental today. It was not, however, without its detractors. Luck was an early and forceful opponent and presaged doom if amplification was successful: ‘If marketing is so many things, then it is nothing’ (1969, p. 53). The Luck perspective, too, remains operative still.

 

In the intervening period, the field has been subjected to transformative theoretical revision and definitional modification. Zinkhan and Williams acknowledge that as thought and practice have changed over the past 100 years, the marketing discipline has been conceived quite differently. ‘From the early emphasis on physical distribution to the last decade’s interest in societal welfare and technology, broad acceptance of an enduring definition of marketing has been elusive’ (2007, p. 284). Substantive work has been done to clarify the progress of marketing thought throughout the 20th century. Wilkie and Moore (2003) conceived it as 4 Eras:

 

  1. pre-academic marketing thought (prior to 1900)
  2. traditional approaches to marketing thought (up to 1955)
  3. the Paradigm Shift (largely the influence of Alderson – to 1975)
  4. the Paradigm Broadening, (from 1975, after Kotler and others).

 

Shaw and Jones (2005 p. 244-45) found similarly but framed their conclusions as the development of schools of marketing thought:

 

    • Marketing functions (what activities comprise marketing?)
    • Marketing commodities (how are various commodities related to marketing functions?)
    • Marketing institutions (who performs marketing functions on commodities?)
    • Marketing management (how should managers market commodities to customers?)
    • Marketing systems (what is a system and why and how does it work?)
    • Consumer behaviour (why do customers buy and how can they be persuaded?)
    • Macromarketing (how do marketing systems and society interact?)
    • Exchange (what are the forms of exchange, who do they involve and why?)
    • Marketing history (when did marketing practices, ideas and theories emerge?)

 

The extent of revisioning within the discipline can be seen in the discarding of the 4Ps by the American Marketing Association (AMA). For two decades from 1985, the 4Ps conceptualisation was widely held to be fundamentally correct and seemingly incontrovertible yet in 2004 its core tenets were abandoned in favour of a new formal definition of marketing. ‘Marketing is an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating, and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders’ (AMA, 2009). This revision remains controversial (Gundlach, 2007; Hunt, 2007; Lusch, 2007, Zinkhan and Williams, 2007). A core criticism is that the definition is too narrow: in one critique that it is confined to an organisational perspective; in another that it is too managerial in approach and, additionally, that it fails to recognise marketing’s wider role in society. As Zinkhan and Williams state: ‘The breadth of marketing activities makes the task of defining marketing uniquely challenging’ (2007, p. 287). They also suggest that strictly worded definitions must be continually expanded to encompass new approaches, areas of influence and techniques.

 

When announcing the new definition, the AMA stated that it incorporated the contributions of many marketers from around the world, both academics and practitioners. Logically, one has to assume that if this definition has been workshopped by the pre-eminent body within the discipline that it is reflective of majority thinking within the discipline. Even so, there is scant evidence of researchers or practitioners rushing to its defence while there is a plethora of critics offering suggested revisions. The on-going debate is healthy but it signifies a field of practice and scholarship which finds common ground among its adherents perhaps even more elusive than when it began to be debated a hundred years ago (Lusch, 2007). Of the many schisms within what Lusch terms ‘the aggregate system of marketing’ (2007, p. 267), one appears more fundamental than any others: those who argue the need for adoption of a strict definition of marketing to resolve contentious issues (Gundlach, 2007; Ringold and Weitz, 2007) and those who advocate further and broader research and theorising (Day and Montgomery, 1999; Hunt, 2007; Lusch, 2007; Wilkie and Moore, 2007; Zinkhan and Williams, 2007). The conceptual flaw in the quest for what might be termed a permanent definition of marketing is that it ignores the contention that marketing evolves as society evolves or, indeed, that developments in marketing practice may actually help drive change in society through an influence on popular mores and culture. The risk inherent in being satisfied with a definition of marketing is that it would act to constrain scholarship and research, though there are many adherents who strongly advocate the opposite view and believe research can achieve greater dividends by restriction to narrow channels of enquiry. It is difficult to see this as either a logical or sensible approach to the pursuit of knowledge. Gundlach warns that researchers who propose topics that might be regarded as not mainstream because they are at variance with an accepted definition could face de facto sanctions by the discipline or its institutions (2007, p. 248). While that may seem a draconian imposition on the fundamental notion of freedom of thought within the academy, there is evidence of censorial tactics being applied within the field of social marketing. This paper addresses that issue subsequently. Harris is one who recognises the implicit strait-jacketing of researchers, suggesting they are ‘so interested in getting their work past reviewers that they ground their work in well-established theories’ hesitant to push the boundaries of critical thought (2007, p. 13). Such intellectual Philistinism is inimical to the best interests of marketing.

 

If there is any lesson to be gleaned from a study of research and practice within the marketing discipline over the past century it is that advances in thinking tend to have a degree of circularity. Though not the first to do so, Wooliscroft (2008) terms this ‘marketing amnesia’ and bemoans the tendency he sees for scholarship in marketing to unveil ‘new paradigms’ which are, in fact, merely repetitions of previous thought in the field. His particular gripe is with Vargo and Lusch whose 2004 paper ‘Evolving to a new dominant logic for marketing’ was awarded by the Journal of Marketing for providing the greatest impact on marketing theory in that year. Wooliscroft is of the view that Vargo and Lusch simply (but not intentionally) overlapped concepts proposed four decades earlier by Wroe Alderson in his seminal work, ‘Dynamic marketing behaviour: A functionalist theory of marketing’ (1965). At face value this may seem merely a disagreement between researchers yet it is symptomatic of the recurring themes that appear in core strands of marketing theory and conceptualisation over many decades. Exploring these issues is a core driver for the marketing history school which seeks, partly, to overcome the ‘myopia’ and ‘amnesia’ that occurs from time to time in which original thinking in this field is overlooked until someone ‘re-discovers’ it with the attendant excitement of a new approach being unveiled.

 

Nor is it just new discoveries that drive revisionism in marketing thought. Some concepts are, to a greater or lesser extent, laid to rest as fashion or enlightenment moves the field to a new point of understanding.  For example, exchanges were a central element of the AMA’s formal definition of marketing that prevailed from 1985 until 2004: ‘Marketing is the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives.’ Yet the exchange process has now been abandoned in the AMA definition of marketing as has the concept of ideas being exchanged, contained in the 1985 definition. It is this exchange of ideas – or meaning – which is frequently a powerful product of marketing but which receives scant attention in contemporary marketing scholarship, particularly in the field of social marketing where it arguably has an ideological home. The concept of exchange has powerful proponents such as Levy (1974), Bagozzi (1975) and Kotler and Levy: ‘The crux of marketing lies in the general idea of exchange rather than the narrower idea of market transactions’ (1969, p. 57). In a period in which marketing seemed to discover its social value – only to recede subsequently and remain in relative quietude for some decades – Lazer was an early proponent of expanding marketing’s boundaries. He saw marketing as ‘not the exclusive province of business management. Marketing must serve not only business but also the goals of society’ (1969, p. 3). He amplified this view to stress: ‘Because marketing is a social instrument through which a standard of living is transmitted to society, as a discipline it is a social one with commensurate social responsibilities that cannot merely be the exclusive concern of companies and consumers’ (1969, p. 9).

 

Kotler and Levy additionally stated that they saw ‘a great opportunity for marketing people to expand their thinking and to apply their skills to an increasingly interesting range of social activity’ (1969, p. 10). Two years later, they amplified this and offered the following definition: ‘Social marketing is the design, implementation, and control of programs calculated to influence the acceptability of social ideas and involving considerations of product planning, pricing, communication, distribution, and marketing research’ (1971, p. 5). As they saw it, marketing techniques enabled knowledge to be used for socially useful purposes. This was the practical emergence of social marketing as a construct and it generated considerable and enduring debate. Even supporters of the role of marketing for social good did not agree on how this activity might be defined. El-Ansary drew a distinction between social and societal marketing. He defined social marketing as ‘the application of standard marketing management concepts and tools to the problem of the dissemination of social ideas and social products’ (1974, p. 317). He contrasted this with societal marketing which he defined as: ‘The incorporation of societal-based considerations in the design and implementation of marketing strategies whether they are designed to influence the acceptability of products, services, social ideas, or an organization’s attempts to relate to all of its publics’ (1974, p. 317).

 

The distinction proposed by El-Ansary did not find broad acceptance. However, Charles Slater who had a substantial influence on the field of macromarketing (Nason and White, 1981) believed that marketing could be applied to improve the well-being of people within social systems. He said: ‘marketing is a part of the whole social process system rather than only a function within each firm or institution’ (Slater and Jenkins, 1979, p. 374). Sheth and Gardner are among many who do not welcome the expansion of marketing’s theoretical boundaries, warning of a ‘crisis of identity (that) threatens the existence of marketing’ (1982, p. 220). This surely is similar to the admonitions Columbus received not to set sail for the certainty that he would fall off the edge of the world. It is not merely myopic towards the pursuit of knowledge, it is blinding.

 

Kotler, who co-authored numerous publications during the formative years of the broadening movement, identifies seven sub-fields of marketing practice which may not have their own body of knowledge but whose very mention would alarm traditionalists. They are, in Kotler’s assessment of order of commencement, (2005, p. 114):

 

  • Social marketing
  • Educational marketing
  • Health marketing
  • Celebrity marketing
  • Cultural marketing (museums and performing arts)
  • Church marketing
  • Place marketing

 

Acknowledging that such transformational shifts have not met with universal approval (albeit, perhaps, just initially), Kotler opined: ‘All said, the invasion of marketing into the non-commercial arena has been a drama laden with setbacks, oppositions, and victories, but the general consensus is that broadening marketing has been good for marketing and good for the areas that marketing has invaded’ (2005, p. 115). Clifford Shultz posits an even broader conception of marketing (macromarketing, in particular) which he sees as playing a role in international relations between nations and terms this constructive engagement (1971). Reaction has been muted but the field offers room for further exploration. Thus we come to the present which Shaw and Jones suggest is perhaps the most fundamental schism yet in the century of refereed marketing thought. They say the paradigm broadening (Kotler’s broadening movement) ‘has bifurcated marketing thought from the conventional domain of business behaviour to the much broader domain of all human social behavior’ (2005, p. 239). As they then conclude – 21st century marketing thought is at a crossroads – and their view is that it is in more disarray now than it was a century ago.

 

The largest of the sub-fields delineated by Kotler – and the one which has won greatest public and practitioner acceptance – is social marketing. This can be demonstrated by a Google Advanced search which reveals 2,380,000 hits for social marketing; 336,000 for education marketing; 161,000 for health marketing; 142,000 for celebrity marketing and 93,200 for place marketing (Google, April 4, 2009). Why social marketing does not meet Shaw and Jones’ categorisation as a school of marketing thought is not obvious given that their definition of a school is:

 

  1. a substantial body of knowledge
  2. developed by a number of scholars; and
  3. describing at least one aspect of the what, how, who, why, when and where of performing marketing activities (2005, p. 241)

 

That each of these criteria is clearly met is demonstrated by even a cursory glance at the literature on social marketing. Indeed, Peattie and Peattie contend there is actually a theory of social marketing (2003, p. 365) well beyond merely a body of practice. There are a number of researchers who share their view, including Black and Smith (1994), Lefebvre (1992) and Manoff (1985). Still, it is acknowledged there is potential for confusion around the theoretical basis of social marketing, especially if there is an over-reliance on ‘direct translation of mainstream marketing principles and practices into social contexts’ (Peattie and Peattie, 2003, p. 365).

 

There are several key topics under the banner of social marketing which attract considerable debate. A primary one is exchange and Peattie and Peattie state that many social marketers contend their work involves an exchange process. Yet they regard their form of exchange as differing from the conventional, commercial marketing exchange which is generally perceived to involve an economic transaction. This flows from foundational marketing thought at the start of the 1900s in which the marketplace existed to facilitate economic exchanges. There has been considerable intellectual effort to suggest ways in which social marketing triggers an exchange process that replicates commercial marketing. Luck (1969), Carman (1973) and Buchanan, Reddy and Hossain (1994) are among those who don’t subscribe to this view. Bagozzi (1979) propounds that exchange involves the transfer of tangible or intangible items between two or more social actors and he suggests that it involves an ambiguity not characteristic of most economic exchanges. Hastings and Saren state that social marketing ‘usually involves the mutual transfer of psychological, social or other intangible entities’ and term this symbolic exchange (2003, p. 309). They contend that this makes the job of the social marketer more problematic. It does, but does this make it any less valid? This is what makes the views of Buchanan et al. so concerning: ‘With the growing intrusion of an exchange mentality, the values of altruism, self-sacrifice and concern for the community will continue to be diminished’ (1994, p. 310). Contending that an exchange of meaning, for example, cannot be imparted altruistically may be an opinion but it is not a fact.

 

Social marketing, as a concept, represents a remarkable opportunity for marketing practice and thought. Its sheer persistence as a scholarship topic for more than half a century connotes an importance that, while subject to controversy and as yet perhaps not fully realised, still commands attention. Yet there are two particular issues which constrain progress in reaching a better understanding of this field and its potential impact on society. The first is the fear that social marketing techniques might be used to unethically manipulate human behaviour. The second constraint is a stance in which the core purpose of social marketing is restricted unnecessarily and perhaps to the detriment of society. Emblematic of the controversy about how marketing techniques can be used to affect society negatively is cigarette marketing. It is widely accepted that scientific evidence demonstrates smoking is universally unadvisable and negative in its health impacts. For marketing techniques to be employed in the promotion of tobacco, it is held by some, stains the reputation of the entire discipline. This is to argue that rhetoric is demeaned because Hitler used it for nefarious purposes. Again, it may be a cause for concern but it is not a valid conclusion. Similarly, the suggestion by Hastings and Saren that critical approaches to marketing cause its ‘ethics, morality and “values”’ to come under scrutiny (2003, p. 313) is a non sequitur. Marketing may be used unethically but it has no inherent ethics, morality or values.

 

The real crux of the future expansion of social marketing practice and theory comes in respect of its capacity to engender social change, indeed, its capacity to achieve social good. In the formative period of thinking in this field, Kotler and Levy (1969) challenged orthodoxy by suggesting that a product did not have to be a physical item but could also be an idea. Glenane-Antoniadis, Whitewell, Bell and Menguc state this is not an isolated viewpoint: ‘Social marketing has often been viewed as the promotion of “ideas”’ (2003, p. 325). El-Ansary earlier defined it as ‘the design, implementation, and control of programs calculated to influence the acceptability of social ideas’ (1974, p. 320). Yet, there has been a marked deviation from original thought over the past twenty years. As Glenane-Antoniadis et al. state: ‘a somewhat changed conceptualization of social marketing has occurred’ (2003, p. 326). They say its ‘key role is now seen, by academics and practitioners alike, as influencing behaviour (Andreasen 1994), rather than promoting ideas, as the means to effect social change for the benefit of wider society’ (2003, p. 326). The contention is challengeable. The issue warranting exploration is whether social change can and should encompass attitudinal change (ideas) and not merely behavioural change. Indeed, it is worthy of note that the very first conception of social marketing – preceding even Kotler – was Wiebe (1951-52) who triggered half a century of subsequent debate with his suggestion that brotherhood could be sold like soap. Hastings (2003, p. 6) hails the idea as ‘revolutionary’ and highlights that this was the first time that so-called commercial sector marketing techniques might be applied to social change. The intriguing aspect of Wiebe’s notion, however, is that ‘brotherhood’ is not a behaviour, it is an attitude of mind. Thus, the foundational concept of social marketing was to achieve attitudinal change not behavioural.

 

The conception of attitudinal change in marketing literature is rare. This is surprising given so much of marketing practice deals with symbolic exchange or the promotion of ideas. Much work in branding is directed at achieving attitudinal change (whether for social good or not, however, is a moot point). Indeed, this particular area of enquiry is not a theoretically-driven issue. Practitioners encounter persuasive challenges in the marketplace that they must explore and this can lead to the boundaries of established disciplinary thinking being stretched to achieve their ends. In which case, theorists can subsequently frame practice as best they see fit. In reflecting a trend towards more symbolic exchange in the practice of social marketing in recent times, I contend that attitudinal change is valid as a form of marketing exchange. This is disputed. Andreasen, for example, contends that ‘(s)ome approaches settle for communications objectives (e.g., increasing knowledge, awareness, and/or attitude change) that marketers would consider only stepping stones to ultimate behaviour change’ (2002, p. 11). This purported primacy of behaviour change is puzzling. Logic suggests that attitudinal change is a likely, if not almost universal, precursor to behavioural change. Can it be seriously suggested that consumers subjected to successful marketing techniques automatically purchase goods without some foundational attitude shift? Can marketing so influence human behaviour that it overrides conceptual thought and can trigger instinctual response? If so, then those who fear its use for other than social good truly have cause for concern.

 

The stance taken by Andreasen contrasts sharply with that of Kotler and Roberto who proffered the following definition in 1989:

 

Since [1971], the term has come to mean a social change management technology involving the implementation, and control of programs aimed at increasing the acceptability of a social idea or practice in one or more groups of target adopters. It utilizes concepts of market segmentation, consumer research, product concept development and testing, directed communication, facilitation, incentives, and exchange theory to maximize the target adopter’s response (p. 24)

 

Andreasen disputes this as an acceptable definition protesting that social marketing is not just to enhance the acceptability of a social idea. He remains steadfast in the
view that the ultimate objective must be behavioural change. ‘Simply gaining acceptance of an idea without inducing action is not success’ (2002, p. 8). In his view such an approach is simply education or attitude change. He also designates initiatives which differ from his own narrow conception as ‘social advertising’, ‘nonprofit marketing’, ‘socially responsible marketing’, ‘public relations’ or ‘mere education’ (2003, pp. 295-296) but without any formal definition of what these terms are supposed to mean (with, perhaps, the exception of public relations) how can the validity of such designations be determined? Indeed, we should ask the question: why would not such ‘fields of practice’ (to use a term very loosely) be subsumed into social marketing? The exclusionist model of a rigid and tightly-drawn definition of a field of practice may actually work to harm that field’s growth and relevance.  The literature on social marketing has an overwhelming orientation towards the modification of behaviour as the key outcome with the vast majority of definitions referring to a change of behaviour as the integral element. Rarely is attitudinal change nominated as a necessary or even desirable objective. Andreasen asserts that social marketing had an identity crisis but that what he terms the social marketing family ‘finally recognized its true nature in the 1990s when a number of leading scholars and practitioners came to the realization that its essence was not changing ideas but changing behavior’ (2003, p. 296). Yet, it is arguable from the lack of marked success of many social marketing campaigns (from the perspective of being able to induce long-term behaviour change, such as getting drivers to obey speed limits) that the instigators are missing the point: change attitudes and you may well initiate longer-lasting and more effective behavioural change. Even Andreasen alludes to this when he states that ‘a critical step in behavior change is the step between contemplation and action. Yet we have limited knowledge about the potential triggers to such action’ (2003, p. 300). Remarkably, Andreasen (in a footnote to his comment above about changing behavior) admits that ‘(s)trictly speaking, it is about influencing (author’s italics) behavior – not necessarily changing it’ and that ‘the term behavior change has come to be accepted shorthand for the truer broader definition’ (2003, p. 300). This is a core issue that is both crucial and contentious. The use of a so-called ‘shorthand term’ in an academic theory or definition is hardly in keeping with accepted standards of scholarly precision and illumination. It is even more surprising given the inflexibility with which this term has been used in the literature by the very person who admits there is a truer and broader definition.

 

What is puzzling is why Andreasen is so passionate about seeking greater recognition for social marketing but does so while constantly stressing a very narrow and limiting view of what social marketing is or could be. Indeed, Andreasen argues for a system of certification for people who wish to call themselves social marketers (2002, p. 8). What value can there be in establishing a closed-shop? However much argument or debate there might be over how best to define social marketing, why penalise anyone for attempting to utilise a marketing approach to achieve social benefit? Andreasen’s stance seems all the more mystifying when he acknowledges that social marketing faces significant barriers to growth because there is no clear understanding of what the field is and what its role should be in relation to other approaches to social change.

 

I argue here that if it is to reach its maximum potential, social marketing must pay attention to competitive challenges at all levels except the generic level while finding ways to disentangle the confusion between the social marketing approach and the enterprises that claim they are practicing it. In my view, this is a problem in competitive positioning, and the problem will be solved when social marketing’s advocates can answer the following questions:

1. What is the irreducible essence of social marketing that enables the careful observer to recognize it when he or she sees it?

2. How can it be determined whether a person claiming to be a social marketer is, in some sense, qualified to make such a claim?

3. When can social marketing be used to address some aspect of a social problem?

4. When should social marketing be used?

A critical challenge implicit in the last question is, Does it work? If advocates cannot identify when and how a social marketing approach has been especially effective, their enthusiasm is not justified (2002, p.8)

 

It is in this respect that Kotler’s identified sub-field of place marketing (and stable-mate of social marketing) commands attention since the opportunity for marketing to be an agent for social good – achieved through attitudinal change – is potentially demonstrated through the practice of place marketing. Skinner (2008) traces the origin of place marketing to Kotler and Levy’s original delineation of the broadening of marketing paradigm (1969), through to Ashworth and Voogd’s 1990 delineation of developments in social marketing and other sub-fields. However, it is arguable that the promotion of places emerged very much earlier with the foundation of civic government itself (Kavaratzis & Ashworth, 2006; Langer, 2002). However, the period since the 1980s has seen the emergence of product branding techniques applied to places (Ashworth & Voogd, 1990). Indeed, Stigel & Frimann (2006) suggest this practice would have been unthinkable prior to the 1980s. In effect, this is a reconceptualisation of branding from its traditional application to tangible consumer products to the relatively intangible concept of place. Hankinson (2004) also acknowledges this expansion of parameters and delineates the fields of tourism and vacation marketing as well as urban planning as the foundational disciplines from which place marketing emerged. Places are defined as geographical entities such as countries, regions, cities or towns (Hanna & Rowley, 2008).

 

Branding itself is a concept which came to the fore a century ago with the emergence of mass-marketed consumer goods, in the American marketplace particularly. The concept of a brand has since been defined as ‘a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers’ (American Marketing Association, 2008). The definition raises the notion of competition, albeit indirectly. Earlier versions of the definition were more explicit in stating ‘to differentiate (goods or services) from those of competitors’ (in Kotler 2002, p. 469) with clear antecedents back to 1960 (in Hankinson, 2004). Gertner states: ‘Numerous communities, cities, states, nations and regions around the world have already understood the urgency of developing and promoting some sort of competitive advantage’ (2007, p. 3). In addition, Morgan, Pritchard and Pride (2002) and de Chernatony & Dall’Olmo Riley (1998) concur, arguing that brand identity is used as a positioning tool against comparable entities to achieve competitive advantage. Kavaratzis (2004) argues that, in the European context particularly, place branding has become a regular facet of government practice and philosophy. Indeed, Kotler, Asplund, Rein and Haider (1999, p. 29) assert that between 5% and 10% of all advertising space in newspapers has a focus on the marketing of places, regions and nations.

 

There is some debate academically as to the rationale and even legitimacy of branding being used in the selling or promotion of an entity such as a place which is not customarily regarded as a consumer good or service (Anholt, 2008). While the issue of legitimacy is argued, there is a much deeper debate over what actually constitutes place branding. Rantisi & Leslie (2006) see it as essentially concerned with symbolic associations and competing realities. That intangibility is reinforced by Gertner & Kotler (2004) who regard place image as the sum of beliefs, ideas and impressions that people have of a place. Fan (2006) argues a similar viewpoint including language and even famous persons in the mix. For Stigel & Frimann (2006), the core issue is one of values and they suggest that traditional product branding – applied to tangible commodities and services with relatively concrete dimensions – will encounter serious communication inconsistencies if applied to the intangible complexities of cities. The potential conflict between the physical characteristics of a place and the representational views of it by residents and external audiences exacerbates the difficulty of establishing a clearly defined place brand (Hankinson, 2004; Parkerson & Saunders, 2005).

 

The notion of identity is a further component of the literature. Stigel & Frimann (2006) suggest identity has long been a contested and problematic issue within developmental and personality psychology, especially given the dynamic nature of personality and its susceptibility to change. ‘The identity of a city is an abstract construct that cuts away concrete differences and contrasts while presupposing constancy and consensus’ (2006, p. 248). Balmer & Greyser (2002) acknowledge that organisations (as with places) have multiple identities given the composite nature of the entity but remark that this plurality can exist comfortably as a natural by-product of inherent complexity. The consultancy, placebrands, puts it more floridly when suggesting that place branding ‘enables a place to build on all its strengths, and make sense out of the often chaotic and contradictory mosaic of its current and future identity’ (n.d.). Just how this synthesis of meanings should best be collated remains problematic. Is it best left to consultants to propose on the basis of ‘relevant experience or expertise’ or should detailed attitudinal analysis of local residents provide the essence? Paasi offers an extra element of competition: that the potential cohesive effect of branding or identity needs a specific contrast. ‘Identity is not merely an individual or social category, but also – crucially – a spatial category, since the ideas of territory, self and “us” all require symbolic, socio-cultural and/or physical dividing lines with the Other’ (Paasi, 2001, p. 10). Baumann (1990) highlights that a sense of belonging, so essential for community cohesion, is dependent on contrasting those who belong and those who do not; the us-and-them of inclusion and exclusion.

 

Olins (2000, p. 255) proposes there has been a transition from internal – when applied to the construction of national identities – to contemporary practice in which the techniques are used to create positive images and reputations primarily directed to external audiences. The diversity of the literature symbolises the complexity of city brands and associated difficulties in capturing the true essence of a place. It is difficult to imagine a brand working well externally if locals are not substantially enamoured of the concept. This reinforces the potential benefit of engaging local residents comprehensively prior to launching any branding campaign to external audiences.

 

The impact of place identity on community cohesion is worthy of further investigation to help determine the potential benefits of inwardly-focused place marketing as opposed to campaigns which are only, or primarily, externally-oriented. Valera and Pol (1994) propose that place identity is a core component of social identity. Turner (1990) goes further and contends that identification with a social group promulgates social cohesion by stimulating group cooperation within a community. Uzzell, Pol & Badenas (2002, p. 30) propose that ‘. . . the presence of strong social cohesion and consequently a strong sense of identity will lead to environmentally altruistic behavior’. While their research has a deliberate environmental orientation, it is reasonable to assume that such altruism would be broadly-based and not confined simply to the environment. The extent to which place branding – internally focused – can be utilised to enhance the emotional well-being of residents by cultivating community pride, however, remains largely unexplored. For example, Hankinson (2004, p. 118) stops short of exploring attitudinal elements of place branding, with his own conceptual model extending from a narrow focus on a perceptual entity or image to include behavioural and economic dimensions. The opportunity remains to explore the potential for city brands or general place marketing to influence residents’ attitudes and their possible conversion to positive place ambassadors. Additionally, the potential for using social marketing practices to enable city brands to cultivate community cohesion remains similarly unexplored and offers a new dimension of relevance and potential enhancement to the field of place marketing. This implies a return to social marketing’s original foundation-stone – that it can be applied to attitudinal change in addition to behavioural change (Kotler & Zaltman, 1971).

 

Place marketing is an exemplar of the potential and capability of marketing to change attitudes rather than behaviour. As Skinner states: ‘The application of marketing practices to refashion the identity of specific places has been the subject of many case studies, usually referring to the place’s new “brand”’ (2008, p. 919). The physical aspects of a place have not changed (perhaps in a limited sense due to new developments but certainly not in totality) so the refashioning occurs as an attitudinal change, not a physical one. Of the confused and confusing analyses of place marketing and place branding that Hospers offers, there is still one that is succinct and insightful:

 

‘Marketing comes from “market getting” and has the market as its starting point, while branding literally means “burning” or “marking” something. Thus, place marketing starts from the usage outsiders have of a place (outside-in approach). In turn, place branding is an act by the place itself and tells the outside world what it is or how it wants to be seen (inside-out approach) (2007, p. 3)

 

Clearly, the brand is a construct or an attitude of mind representing a conceived and/or projected perception of a place which may be quite different from the actual reality. Skinner admits defeat on the part of academics in their ability to sensibly delineate specific terms for the phrases: place marketing and place branding (2008, p. 923). Gronroos proposes a very different conception, not only of place marketing, but marketing as a whole. He categorises earlier definitions by the AMA of marketing as ‘preoccupied with structural elements and neglect(ing) the importance of process’ suggesting that process has only been recognised implicitly (2006, p. 410). Gronroos projects his thinking further, stating that traditionally, marketing ends with the purchase decision. In this conceptual framing, the product (in whatever form) is the be-all and end-all of customer satisfaction. Yet Gronroos challenges us to go further and perceive marketing as a process in which the customer’s interactions with the resources provided by the marketer enables the customer to be a creator, or sometimes co-creator, of value for themselves (2006, p. 410). Thus, the customer can be presented with marketing concepts which trigger a thought process or attitudinal change entirely unrelated to the ‘consumption’ of a traditional product. Indeed, it is Gronroos’ view that ‘mainstream marketing research has not been able to cope with the changes that have taken place in . . . customer interfaces’ (2006, p. 410). This is indicative of marketing practice advancing beyond theory to reflect or even drive societal change. If this contention is true, it is those scholars who denounce the definitional broadening of marketing and its sub-fields who appear unable to see the writing on the wall. It is certainly acceptable for such views to be championed but any accompanying stridency may eventually (and, perhaps, sooner than later) appear ill-conceived and misplaced. Knowledge by its very nature is an unfolding paradigm exemplified by even hard sciences such as mathematics and physics having on occasion to acknowledge new ‘truths’ after decades of denial when apparently radical conceptualising has eventually been validated. Even Canute could not dare suggest marketing is subject to immutable laws.

 

There is a fundamental reality which appears to be overlooked all too frequently in this contest of ideas over the broadening of marketing. It is this: communication is THE most defining human capability since no other species of which we are aware replicates our unique ability to share meaning. Marketing is a refinement of this ubiquitous communication capability. Our insights into marketing have grown as has the theorising and conception of communication over the same century-long timeframe. Is it any wonder there are many proponents who see marketing as a thoroughly pervasive element of human interaction, rather than a narrow-channeled, specialist discipline? There are two choices facing marketing scholars: to have marketing so narrowly defined that further study in the field withers simply because there are no new boundaries to investigate; or, to cherish paradigm expansion and welcome a plethora of new insights and knowledge which not only stimulates the field but offers marketing practitioners and scholars the potential to achieve social good through enhancement of our innate communicative abilities. And, just as a rhetorical question: why is such an inherently creative industry as marketing so hidebound and rigid in its scholarly adjunct?

 

This review of marketing literature reveals several gaps worthy of research and potential theorising. Several questions warrant exploration:

 

  • Can place marketing be utilised to cultivate cohesive communities through an inwardly-directed engagement of residents as consumers?
  • Can place marketing practice be utilised to achieve attitudinal change?
  • Why does attitudinal change not feature prominently as a legitimate marketing objective?
  • Should social marketing theory incorporate attitudinal change as a legitimate outcome of social marketing practice?
  • If social marketing theory retains a behavioural change focus as the only valid outcome of social marketing practice, is there a case for defining what might be termed attitudinal marketing?
  • What definitional attributes would attitudinal marketing encompass?

 

There are significant challenges to be met in respect of further conceptual analysis of what might be termed attitudinal marketing as well as delineation of valid assessment tools but there remains a substantive opportunity for further research and theoretical exploration. This contribution is offered, not in the belief that an ultimate and final definition of marketing (or, indeed, social marketing) can be developed, but in the expectation that as society changes marketing will transform contemporaneously as well. The truly intriguing question is to what extent at any time will marketing either help drive, or merely reflect, those societal changes? For the academy, the challenge is to determine if the research cohort of the discipline will be in thrall to developments in marketing practice or whether it can provide the thought leadership that commands widespread practitioner respect and adherence.

 

 

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