You’re watching TV. A voiceover plays as a sizzling frying pan comes into view: “This is drugs.” A man then cracks an egg into the frying pan: “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

You view a “We Can Do It” poster featuring Rosie the Riveter, whether the historic original or a contemporary remake.

You pass a billboard—or see a social media ad— where the iconic Smokey the Bear tells you, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

What do these three campaigns have in common? These are all prominent examples of social marketing, or “marketing for good.” You’ve almost definitely come across at least one of these.

But what is social marketing, and what is it not? Why is it important? What are the “4 Ps” of social marketing? What are the essential elements and strategies to utilize if your company chooses to use social marketing? We’ll give you all the answers here – and break down several amazing social marketing examples, to help you generate ideas for your own campaign. Let’s dive in!

What is social marketing?

Social marketing is marketing designed to create social change, not to directly benefit a brand. Using traditional marketing techniques, it raises awareness of a given problem or cause, and aims to convince an audience to change their behaviors.

So, instead of selling a product, social marketing “sells” a behavior or lifestyle that benefits society, in order to create the desired change. This benefit to the public good is always the primary focus. And instead of showing how a product is better than competing products, social marketing “competes” against undesirable thoughts, behaviors, or actions.

Social marketing is commonly used for causes like:

Environmental causes:

  • Anti-deforestation
  • Anti-littering
  • Endangered species awareness

Health and safety issues:

  • Promoting exercise and healthy eating
  • Safe driving
  • Anti-drug
  • Anti-smoking
  • Workplace safety
  • Safety when using public transportation

Social activism:

  • Anti-bullying
  • Fighting gender stereotypes
  • Illuminating instances of discrimination, then inspiring people to fight against mechanisms that create inequality
    • Ads in this subcategory include anti-racism ads, disability activism ads, and more

Who initiates these social marketing campaigns?

  • Nonprofit organizations and charities run the majority of social marketing campaigns.
  • Government organizations, emergency services (police, fire, ambulance) and highway safety coalitions run them as well.
  • But social marketing is not out of the question if you’re a commercial business. Commercial brands will sometimes run social marketing campaigns for branding or causes they are passionate about.



What doesn’t count as social marketing?

Before we move forward with our explanation of social marketing, it’s crucial to clear up the confusion. Here are a few types of marketing that people confuse with social marketing, but that actually do NOT fall into the category of social marketing.

  • Marketing “green” or “charity tie-in” products is not social marketing. In other words, if a company is marketing its own line of eco-friendly water bottles, hybrid cars, reusable lunch containers, or other “green” products, this doesn’t count as social marketing. The marketing of products with a charitable donation tie-in (such as TOMS) doesn’t count either. In both of these examples, the primary focus is on selling a product, even though a worthy cause does benefit. Meanwhile, with social marketing, the focus is solely on changing behaviors for the public good.

Here’s an example:

  • An ad with alarming stats on the number of disposable water bottles thrown out per year, which promotes Hydro Flask reusable bottles as environmentally friendly, and that is made by Hydro Flask to sell its own bottles, is not social marketing.
  • Meanwhile, a general campaign to promote reusable water bottles, made by an environmental organization, that does not promote a specific brand of reusable bottle, is social marketing.

hydroflask ad

  • Self-serving donations certainly don’t count as social marketing. If a company publicizes a donation they make to a charity or cause, their aim is partially to boost their own reputation. This is not social marketing, due to the self-benefit factor.
  • Finally, social media marketing is not the same as social marketing! This is the most common area of confusion. Many people wrongly equate social marketing with social media marketing: marketing on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.  Well, sometimes, social media will be used to spread, and generate buzz around, social marketing campaigns. However, most marketing on social media is oriented towards promoting a product or service, rather than solely raising awareness of a cause. That influencer’s promotion of Fashion Nova on Instagram, and those viral tweets by Wendy’s, are definitely not social marketing—they’re extremely self-serving!

Why is social marketing so important?

Think about “traditional” ads for products or services. You aren’t convinced to check out a product or service through an ad alone (in fact, you tune out the vast majority of ads you see).

But how does a well-designed ad capture your attention? It either takes a super creative angle you didn’t expect, or makes you laugh, cry, or think. Not every ad convinces you to check out the product or service it promotes, but the best ones appeal to creativity or emotion to motivate people to do so.

It’s the same way with social marketing. People don’t like being told what to do. They might not be convinced by news and typically presented PSAs about a certain social issue. Or, they might not be aware of the problem or its scope.

Some people might also find a socially beneficial behavior too difficult to perform, or might think they can’t help solve an issue on their own. Alternatively, they might have trouble breaking a long-standing habit (i.e. someone trying to quit smoking, or someone who uses disposable water bottles regularly).

But well-executed social marketing captures attention, and spreads awareness about a social issue, through creativity and emotion. Most importantly, it presents a compelling, simple way to make the world better, and makes this beneficial behavior more desirable than any “competing” behavior. Through these elements, social marketing is able to successfully “sell” a beneficial behavior.

Social marketing is especially powerful when it involves a charitable donation element, because people want to make a difference in the world. They’re very willing to give—it’s just a matter of where.

According to Nonprofits Source:

  •  Charities received $410 billion from Americans in 2017.
  • Total donations to nonprofits increased 4.1% in 2016 and 5% in 2017.
  • 84% of millennials donate to charity, at a yearly average of $481 per person.
  • “Environment and animals charities; arts, culture and humanities organizations; international affairs nonprofits; and health causes [have] experienced the largest jumps in contributions.”

People are poised to make a difference with their wallets, and social marketing takes full advantage by illuminating worthy causes.

What are the “4 Ps” of social marketing

Now that we’ve thoroughly established the social marketing definition, let’s take a look at 4 essential elements for any marketing campaign—the “4 Ps”—and see how they work within the social marketing sphere.  These “Ps” are product, place, price, and promotion, and they’re also known as the “marketing mix.” You’ll need to define these factors before you design your social marketing campaign, and keep them central when you design.

Product: With social marketing, the “product” is the desired social action and the benefits this action offers. Make sure that this change is presented as enticingly as possible…this may include framing the opposite behavior as negative. Also, clarity is key. Make sure your audience can quickly and easily understand your “product” and its benefits.

Place: Where do you want your audience to perform the desired behavior? How can you reach them in ways that make it easier to perform the behavior in that location (and make that behavior more desirable than competing behaviors)? Do you need to recruit peers of your audience as “ambassadors,” to make the campaign more accessible to your audience?

Consider these examples for “place:”

  • If you’re running a donation campaign, include a website, QR code, or live donation link on your campaign ads.
  • If you’re trying to encourage reusable bag use in stores, charge customers for every disposable bag they need, and offer reusable bags at a small fee (that customers can keep bringing back and using at no cost to them). Or take this one step further: print messages like “plastic bags kill marine life” on the disposable bags, and make the reusable bags beautiful and attractive to use.
  • If you’re setting up a helpline for teens, make it available 24 hours a day, via call, text, and online messaging.

Price: Minimize the “price” that your audience believes they have to “pay” for the desired social action to take place.

This price isn’t all monetary. It’s also about minimizing the difficulty, time, and psychological/emotional costs that people will incur. So, when you’re designing a social marketing campaign, you’ll need to think about (and research) the obstacles that hinder your audience from performing the behavior.

Then, figure out intuitive, feasible ways to fight these obstacles. For example, if your campaign is aimed at encouraging more exercise in your community, but safe outdoor spaces are minimal and indoor class costs are a barrier, consider offering free indoor fitness classes.

Promotion: Promotion covers how your campaign will be presented to your audience: the contents, imagery, and medium of your social marketing ad. This is where the three other “Ps” come together!

  • What channels and outlets will help you best reach your audience and draw their attention to the social marketing campaign: Social media? Television? A sign, billboard, or installation? Guerrilla campaigns?
  • How will you draw attention to the product (behavior), the place you want the action performed in, and the minimized price?

Key social marketing tips and strategies

How will you creatively communicate the “4 Ps” to your audience, and strike an emotional chord? And how can you work to maximize your impact over time? Consider these tips and strategies for the best results.

Properly minimizing “price” may take several rounds of research

Before you design your campaign, to figure out what obstacles stand in the way of your audience performing your desired behavior (“price”), you’ll need to do some thorough research. Survey your audience online, on the phone, or in print. Keep in mind that it may take several surveys and conversations to accurately find the “price.” After all, as you talk to more people, you’ll have a better idea of the most common obstacles.

After you’ve identified the “price” and brainstormed ways to minimize it, consider holding focus groups, to see how people respond to the identified problem and possible solution.

Once you’re ready to design your campaign, create a slogan and compelling visuals, and think about crafting a simple but memorable symbol, to serve as powerful “triggers” that motivate action and stick in your audience’s minds.

Visuals are everything

Imagery that surprises or shocks audiences can be a powerful motivator, especially if it illustrates the problem or shows the negative impact of undesirable behaviors. Choose your campaign medium carefully to maximize the force of your visuals.

Consider creating a simple but memorable symbol

Some of the most effective social marketing campaigns involve simple yet now-iconic symbols, such as the pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness. Sometimes, that symbol is a character (think Smokey Bear). If you can create a simple yet memorable symbol or character that ties in with your campaign, that further increases the chances that your campaign behavior will “stick.”

Craft a catchy slogan

“Only you can prevent forest fires.” “This is your brain on drugs.” “We can do it!” The three iconic social marketing campaigns listed at the beginning of the article all had catchy, easy-to-remember slogans. Writing some sort of slogan is a necessity for your own social marketing campaign. As we mentioned above, you want your audience to understand the behavior you’re seeking, and how to act on the behavior, as quickly as possible. So, it makes perfect sense to condense that idea into a campaign slogan— a simple, enticing sentence that will stay in your audience’s minds. If you can include a reference to the desirable behavior’s benefits, even better.

Awesome social marketing campaigns

Now, let’s take a look at 10 effective social marketing campaigns, divided by type of cause. We go over what the campaigns do well, including how they show the 4 Ps.


Humanitarian causes

1. See how easy feeding the hungry can be?



Organization: Feed SA, a charity that works to feed needy individuals in South Africa

Product: Encourage food donations to Feed SA; secondarily, encourage people to visit the Feed SA website

Place: Grocery stores.

Promotion: Place images of hungry children holding out their hands in shopping carts, begging for food, so it looks like any food placed in the shopping cart is being given to the child. Seats of the carts displayed the slogan “See how easy feeding the hungry can be?” and the Feed SA website.

Price-Cutting:  All stores where this promotion was placed had food donation bins at store exits, so people could donate to FeedSA right away. No need to go very far!

Our take: Such a creative campaign that really tugs at your emotions—it definitely looks like food is being given to the child in need. And it meets the audience where they are able to take action against hunger, by being positioned where they can buy food. But it’s the element of readily available donation bins that really ties this campaign together, as it gives the audience an immediate way to act once they’re moved.

As Ads of the World reports in the image above, the campaign was quite inexpensive, yet very effective. “For the cost of a few decals,” Feed SA experienced “a marked increase in donations and a significant boost in website traffic.”

2. It’s not happening here, but it is happening now


Organization: Amnesty International

Product: Illuminate human rights abuses happening across the world, and inspire the audience to assist Amnesty International in combating these abuses (by visiting their website and either making a donation, signing a petition, or both).

Place: Bus stops, train and subway stations, phone booths, and anywhere else a large poster could hauntingly recreate the surroundings behind it.

Promotion: Posters that painstakingly recreated and exactly matched the surroundings behind them, and depicting a human rights abuse happening within those immediate surroundings—right in front of audiences’ eyes. Abuses depicted included children forced to fight in wars, people bound, gagged, and beaten, and children living in abject poverty.

Price-Cutting: Stark awareness—Amnesty knew that the issues are easy to ignore when they aren’t happening in someone’s community, so they made it look like the abuse was unfolding right where the poster was.

Our Take: This campaign brings issues to light that are often ignored because they’re half a world away. By bringing them into the audience’s own backyard, the audience identifies with these victims of human rights and is inspired to help. Plus, we appreciate the painstaking effort that went into recreating the poster’s surroundings and making it look like a glass window—I definitely thought the images were superimposed over glass, not printed on an opaque poster. And this campaign worked: Goodvertising reports that these posters increased visits to the Amnesty website by twenty times!

(Note: this campaign also included the image of the child soldier highlighted in the “visuals” section above.)

Environmental causes

3. Plastic Bags Kill



Organization: Designed by BBDO Ad Agency, Malaysia (exact organization unknown)

Product: Reduce disposable plastic bag use in favor of reusable bag use.

Place: Retail stores, most of which offer disposable plastic bags

Promotion: Striking imagery and messaging right on plastic bags: the message “Plastic bags kill” and the image of a struggling turtle.

Price-cutting: Make p