Selling good behavior

Selling good behavior

Vegan Society of Canada News
August 12th 2021

For the most part, people are willing to use paper straws, purchase energy-efficient light bulbs and deal with a slightly less effective showerhead to conserve water—products that are sold to the consuming public under the guise of serving some public good. The effectiveness of these products isn't our focus, but rather the marketing strategies used by these corporations that prey on a seeming preference in the population to purchase products that appear to support some public concern.

We may be able to bring about temporary change in people, but the more difficult challenge is how to make those fleeting behavioural changes a permanent part of everyday life. To get some insights into how these things work, we can glean and try to harness the undeniable, behaviour-changing effects that marketing has been shown to have when it comes to transforming people's temporary intentions into long-lasting behaviours and actions. As it so happens, there is already a field that looks into this: social marketing.

The concept that lies at the centre of social marketing, as opposed to traditional product marketing, is that the focus is always on the social good. Examples range from climate change awareness, hand-washing initiatives, healthy eating, anti-smoking campaigns, and, in our case, vegan initiatives.

Since “the ultimate objective of marketing is to influence action and change behaviour" this presents us with the opportunity to try and sell people on better behaviours with the hope that social good can be achieved by doing so. We can safely say that a strong marketing campaign has the power to sell people on ideas and products that might not be in their best interests, but it also seems like a safe bet that a proper marketing campaign might be able to sell people on concepts that will serve to better themselves and the global environment.

Climate change

One example of how social marketing has been studied previously is presented to us by Haq et al. in a set of papers from 2008 and 2013. In both of these papers, they researched ways to reduce the United Kingdom’s carbon footprint. According to their findings, a vast majority of the common sources of greenhouse gas emissions are a result of “the choices made by individuals, households, businesses and other stakeholders at the local community level.

It was therefore imperative that steps were taken to understand how and why decisions are made. In addition, they also stressed the critical importance of encouraging willingness and potential to change consumption choices when attempting to achieve sustained attitudinal and behavioural change. They identified three barriers that they felt most strongly interfered with an individual pursuing a green lifestyle:

  1. A narrow focus on local issues rather than distant threats, in this case, climate change.
  2. Preoccupation with short-term budgetary concerns. This is most significant for low-income households.
  3. Force of habit. A reluctance to alter one's routine.

Their 2013 paper concluded that social marketing works best when it is used “as a complementary think approach that uses information and deliberative engagement to foster pro-environmental change.” In light of this, the main source of social marketing that was employed by the Haq et al. team was to provide their groups of households with “a pool of experts who, on request, could attend local meetings and provide further advice on reducing their carbon footprint.”

The advice that was made available discussed various methods of carbon footprint reduction such as “energy saving in the home, micro-generation, locally sourced food, recycling and composting.” As a result of their experimentation, they found that there was a statistically significant average household reduction of around 1 to 3 tonnes of CO2e/year. This, of course, comes with the usual scientific caveats: attrition during the experiment, reduction in some areas and not others, some groups did not do as well as other ones did, etc. Overall the results showed promise and laid the groundwork for future, more expansive project ideas.

Healthy eating

A 2014 literature review of thirty-four empirical studies was undertaken by Carins&Rundle Thiele to study the effectiveness of the use of social marketing interventions to encourage healthy eating behaviour. Social marketing strategies they identified were divided into two subcategories: “social marketing as a planned consumer-oriented process” and “social advertising not social marketing.”

The former category contained processes that “frequently commenced with consumer-oriented research to produce an intervention involving a full marketing mix.” Strategies in the first category tended to employ interventions that analyzed the current activities, preferences, values, and barriers to change of the target population before implementing an intervention that incorporated individual and community activities as well as creating policy changes.

The latter category of “social advertising not social marketing” lacked an apparent clear marketing orientation and simply used some degree of the social marketing process in the creation of promotional materials.

Putting aside the issues identified with the term social marketing being misused to describe social advertising, they found that studies employing social marketing tended to report behaviour change in their subjects of interest, i.e. an increased healthy diet. They also identified the components that helped to predict successful implantation of social marketing strategies and grouped them using Andreasen’s social marketing benchmark criteria:

Behavioural objective

  • Evaluate healthy eating using multiple behaviours
  • Tackle single behaviours serially over time

Audience segmentation

  • Identify different groups
  • Target each group with a unique solution

Formative research

  • Conduct formative research
  • Research must be consumer-oriented


  • Offer salient benefits—short-term benefits can be more salient than long-term benefits
  • Consider trials, rewards and prizes to stimulate trial and repeated behaviour

Marketing mix

  • Move beyond communication—interventions must be multifaceted (e.g. more than promotion and communication)
  • Efforts need to be directed at initiating new behaviour and encouraging repeat behaviour


  • Undertake competitive analysis
  • Know your direct and indirect competition

The conclusion drawn is that the most effective use of social marketing is observed when full use of the mix of marketing strategies is employed and not limited to only relying on advertising or communication.

Limitations of social marketing

Haq et al. ran into issues with attrition and Carins&Rundle-Thiele pointed out the imprecise nature of terminology and application. A 2009 article by Stuart discusses several other points where social marketing can fail. Such points include the inadvertent glamourizing of unhealthy or unwanted behaviour—imagine the issues with an anti-smoking campaign that showed celebrities smoking, or creating an us vs. them mentality that can potentially force people onto the other side of an issue against their best interests.

As with regular marketing, there is also the need to know your market and how best to approach them. As Stuart discusses, explaining the health risks surrounding smoking to young teenagers is less likely to be effective than highlighting benefits that teenagers are more likely to find salient, such as money, better hygiene, attractiveness, etc. He advises care and sensitivity be employed with social marketing campaigns to avoid these potential issues.

Another systemic issue with regards to social marketing was highlighted in a 2013 paper by Langford&Panter-Brick where they pointed out that since social marketing directly appeals to an individual's agency, there is ignorance demonstrated toward systemic issues, such as poverty, that constrain behaviours.

They explored this issue when they noted that their social marketing intervention to encourage hand-washing in Kathmandu was hamstrung by the understandable fact that “the potential threat of [a subject's] child becoming sick as a result of not hand-washing was far less pressing than the need to earn enough money to survive the next week.” The substantial issues that the subject population faced—poverty conditions, abusive spouses, substance abuse, child-rearing, etc., made the experimenter's interventions to promote hand-washing, despite the obvious merit and near necessity, become almost “irrelevant and futile.”

In addition, we should not forget that with social marketing we still don’t clearly understand how all the factors work, and we can see this clearly in the case of climate change. At this time, it seems no amount of social marketing makes any difference to what we are willing to do—or not do, no matter that our future is unquestionably in danger.

Assuming that those token gestures like changing showerheads are not part of some astroturfing strategy by various climate change denier organizations, we can affect some change but nothing of the order of magnitude required to avert the worst of climate change. There is still much research to be done to clearly understand where social marketing works best and where it doesn’t and why.

Vegan social marketing

As far as we know, there is currently no research being done on vegan social marketing and this would be an area wide open for researchers. We don’t expect there to be too much difference with traditional social marketing techniques, but, as with climate change, there are undeniably a large number of unknowns. It seems many people are willing to do token gestures, like changing light bulbs or having a bean burger once in a while, but meaningful, lasting changes escape us.

So far the focus has been on ethics, health or the environment, but perhaps a deeper insight into what causes people to change light bulbs but not incorporate more significant shifts could point us to other facets we may have overlooked.

We also need to do a better job of understanding our audience and the interests of subgroups of the population and those working against our vision. Only by having a good understanding of each subgroup can we hope to tailor effective campaigns that resonate with them.

Another technique that has risen prominently in marketing is gamification; its various elements could translate well in a social marketing campaign for veganism. Traditionally, gamification may have appealed only to part of the population, but it could prove useful as technology penetrates throughout all segments of the population.

It is crucial that we have a good understanding of how to efficiently change intention into actions, otherwise our vision becomes nothing more than the idea of world peace. Social marketing could provide some much-needed insights on how to make human animals follow through on their intentions.

We invite anyone interested in doing research to help us achieve our vision to contact us so we can explore how best to work together.

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