The When Where and Why of Social and Commercial Marketing

Author: Lindsey Funk
Posted: May 23, 2016

Not to be confused with social media marketing, social marketing is marketing that’s goal is to influence (and change) the behavior of a target audience and, ideally, the social norm.


There have been countless social marketing campaigns over the years, and the practice goes back to well before the term was even coined. Campaigns to abolish child labor, promote rights to vote and encourage women to join the workforce are just a few examples of early social marketing efforts. Rosie the Riveter is one of the most iconic social marketing campaigns. Created by the War Ad Council to help recruit women to the workforce during World War II, this powerful campaign recruited 2 million women to the workforce. These ads made a change in the way people viewed women in the workforce, making it socially acceptable and even desirable for women to be employed outside of the home.

Another wildly successful social marketing campaign is Smokey the Bear with his signature line, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Research shows that 96% of Americans recognize Smokey, which is right up there with Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse.

Commercial Marketing vs. Social Marketing:
While commercial and social marketing share basic marketing concepts, there are a few key differences to keep in mind:

Commercial Marketing:

  • Sell of goods and service
  • Financial gain
  • Competition of others selling similar goods and services

Social Marketing:

  • Sell of a behavior change
  • Individual or societal gain
  • Competition of the current preferred behavior or sometimes industry promoting the current behavior

Social Marketing Challenges:
It is important to consider the specific challenges that come along with a social marketing campaign. The biggest obstacle that we must overcome as social marketers is the challenge to persuade people to behave against their own personal identity, along with their social, cultural and sometimes historical norms. We are asking them to step out of their comfort zones and engage in a new behavior. It is extremely difficult to convince an audience to potentially be inconvenienced or embarrassed, or just to simply make an effort to form a new habit.

In social marketing, there must be a voice coming from the campaign that is trusted and believable to the audience. It is key to pinpoint exactly who is being targeted in order to get the right messages across. Most targets can be found by statistical research and testing, however, there are three key questions that can help determine a campaign’s target:

Who are those most at risk? This is the audience most affected by the problem the campaign intends to address.

Who are those most open to change? This is the audience that is already engaging in behaviors that could be more easily adapted to the behavior in which the campaign intends to promote.

Who are those most critical for success? This is the audience who is key to influencing others to engage in the new behavior.

Cause Marketing:
Commercial marketers can and often do engage in a form of social marketing usually referred to as Cause Marketing. This type of marketing involves the cooperative efforts of a for-profit business and a non-profit organization for mutual benefit. There are many examples of businesses promoting a cause marketing campaign, but a more recent example is the Budweiser Super Bowl Ad with Helen Mirren. This ad called on drivers to not drink and drive, and for every use of their #GiveADamn hashtag, Budweiser will spend $1 on safe ride programs.

There’s no doubt social marketing and cause marketing can be challenging. But with a sound strategy and idea, it can be done successfully and create change for the better. In the words of Rosie the Riveter… We Can Do It! 

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