Social marketing: Can it tackle the ‘super wicked problem’ of climate change?

There are problems, and then there are wicked problems – and then there are super wicked problems. Many researchers and academics will say that climate change falls in the latter category.

My interest in climate change was reinvigorated while browsing through the programme for the upcoming World Social Marketing Conference on 16-17 May. Climate change is a key conference theme, with various paper presentations and a panel session devoted to the issue. Leading up to the conference, it’s worthwhile to explore the role social marketing plays in addressing the super wicked problem that is climate change.

The super wicked problem

I became refamiliarized with the phrase while listening to a great Re-Quilibrium podcast on social marketing and climate change. In the podcast, researcher David Meiklejohn first defines a wicked problem as a difficult problem with no easy solution – a problem that is harder to define and harder to end cleanly than a ‘tame’ problem (read more). Smoking is one example.

Meiklejohn then explains that the emergence of climate change as an issue created four additional complexity factors that went beyond those defined for wicked problems. As a result, academics began defining climate change as a super wicked problem with the following additional complexity factors:

  1. There is a limited time to respond. Example: With weather hazards growing in frequency and intensity, and increased community vulnerability linked to climate change, we need to act now before the issue becomes too overwhelming to tackle.
  2. They are caused by those seeking the solution. Example: Many of us fail to take practical actions to address climate change, though we may believe that it is a problem.
  3. There is weak or non-existent central authority. Example: Government action is affected by declining public trust and fluctuating levels of support for climate action and policies.
  4. We discount future benefits gained from taking action. Example: We value the current benefits of fossil fuels over the long-term benefits of renewable energy sources.

Is social marketing a super wicked solution?

Meiklejohn explains that from a policy perspective, climate change solutions tend towards large policy changes that can impact whole populations. But when it comes to social marketing “that’s more difficult, because we tend to work downstream – we don’t tend to work at a high policy level…we tend to work much more directly with the populations that we have contact with.”

Thinking about the four complexity factors is therefore a very useful way to develop better social marketing interventions targeting climate change. Meiklejohn recommends that such programmes should not focus on what people think about the issue, but rather what they do, or actions that they can take or are already taking.

“People say one thing about climate change and one thing about sustainability but they do very different things at times, and ultimately we’re going to be judged on how effective we are – we’re not going to be judged on whether people remember the brand of a programme, whether they remember the message of a programme – it’s got to be about what did they do.”

Meiklejohn supports using segmentation to look at specific group behaviours and lifestyles in the target population that can impact on climate change, as opposed to a broad approach that tries to get everybody to act in the same way. “The things that we do are very different across the population, and they all contribute to climate change, but we may not recognize them as doing so,” he says.

A key challenge social marketers face may be that many people are indifferent or even actively hostile towards the climate change discourse, and they may therefore not identify with the brand being communicated in a given programme. So, how do you win these people over? Meiklejohn stresses that programmes need to go beyond branding campaigns or a one-size-fits-all approach, to framing the issue in other ways:

“You might have some people that are actively hostile to the idea of climate change but are not actively hostile to the idea of reducing their energy costs, and therefore solar might make a lot of sense to them from a purely financial point of view. Once you get them to put up solar, you might have an in to be able to talk to them about other things.”

Solar energy

Photo credit: Kaspars Dambis, Flickr Creative Commons

One interesting example from Meiklejohn’s podcast is an approach in the United Kingdom addressing the fourth complexity factor: discounting the future benefits of taking action on climate change. The Behavioural Insights Team examined approaches to encourage consumers to purchase more energy efficient dishwashers and washing machines. These products are better for the environment but are more expensive than less energy efficient models. However, the lifetime running costs of the efficient models tend to be lower. To get around the initial sticker price differentiation, BIT worked with department stores to include lifetime prices on these goods, encouraging customers to purchase the more energy efficient models (read more, page 147).

As Meiklejohn’s podcast proves, social marketing can be a very useful approach for addressing climate change, though pundits continue to debate its usefulness given its limited scale and scope. Nevertheless, it remains a tried and tested approach for fostering the real behaviour change that is so sorely needed for sustainable development.

Featured photo: Asian Development Bank, Flickr Creative Commons

Original article published on the International Social Marketing Association website

Social media for social marketing: Building a movement for equality

As part of my social media for social marketing series I’m highlighting a diverse range of examples that exemplify this approach in very creative ways.

Last time, I looked at the #LikeAGirl campaign, and now I’ll briefly highlight the impact of the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC’s) Facebook Logo campaign.

In 2013, HRC catalyzed a movement supporting marriage equality, helping overturn Proposition 8 in California and the Defense of Marriage Act. HRC modified its logo by changing its colours to red and pink (see featured photo)—colours frequently associated with romance and love.

On March 25, 2013, the day before the Supreme Court was scheduled to start deliberations on Proposition 8, HRC posted on Facebook encouraging users to adopt the modified logo as their profile picture. The message was shared over 125,000 times. The logo and variants spread through the network, through millions of everyday users and social media influencers such as Beyoncé, George Takei, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen DeGeneres and Martha Stewart. A large number of supporters created their own remixes of the HRC logo, which was a testament to the ability of the campaign to engage and inspire.



The campaign drove over 700,000 unique visitors to HRC’s website in just 24 hours. More than 100,000 of them signed and shared HRC’s ‘Majority Opinion’ petition, recruiting more than 67,000 new supporters. Government leaders and corporations showed their support through Facebook posts and images. Not only did the campaign help overturn Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, it also helped make same-sex marriage become much more socially acceptable to support and advocate for. And the campaign itself won multiple awards to boot.

Read more about the campaign

Social media for social marketing: Can hashtags, viral content and online networks influence behaviour?

In the age of hashtags and viral videos, can social media be a powerful tool for social marketing? As a digital communications specialist I’m keen on finding examples and best practices.

First thing’s first though – it’s worthwhile to clarify the distinctions between social marketing and social media marketing, as people often confuse the two.

Social marketing, as defined by the International Social Marketing Association, “seeks to develop and integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviours that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good.” Social media marketing on the other hand utilizes social networking websites specifically as a marketing tool, to build brands, market products and services and broaden stakeholder reach. But it’s worth noting that the two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Different combinations of these approaches can be used in an organization’s marketing strategy.

Here, I’m concerned with social media as a tool supporting social marketing. With that said, I’d like to share the first of three examples that I believe exemplify this link in very creative ways.

The 2014 #LikeAGirl campaign, run by the feminine hygiene company Always, used a powerful video and social media to show that this phrase – which had become an insult – could be empowering. The campaign included elements of both social marketing and social media marketing, as described above.

Using YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, people were encouraged to comment on and share the video, as well as the #LikeAGirl hashtag, together with examples of how the phrase can mean amazing things. A range of social media influencers – including celebrities and government leaders – participated. By the official end of the campaign, the #LikeAGirl video was viewed more than 90 million times, becoming the number two viral video globally. And there were 177,000 #LikeAGirl tweets in the first three months of the campaign. #LikeAGirl generated significant global awareness and changed the way people think about the phrase. Positive perceptions of the phrase increased from 19 to 76 percent among the youth surveyed. What’s more, two out of three men who participated in the campaign said they’d now think twice before using ‘like a girl’ as an insult. Read a case study on the campaign

Look out for two more social media for social marketing examples in a future post.

The case for communications

Image: Maxime Dinaux, Flickr

“Halting climate change. Eradicating disease. Lifting up the arts. Ending poverty. At their core, foundations and nonprofits are in the business of developing and advancing big, bold ideas. If you want your ideas to take hold and win, you need to communicate and communicate well. It’s not an option anymore—it’s a necessity.”

“Practiced at its highest level, communications is so much more than PR or marketing. Smart, strategic communications defines, cultivates, and understands important audiences. It listens. It crafts and shares clear, compelling stories. It builds relationships and deploys influence. It convenes. It designs. It analyzes data and gathers intelligence. It creates conversations. It understands and directs the best of old and new power.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. The above extracts on the power of strategic and effective communications is taken from the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s web series, ‘The Case for Communications’.

Through a variety of case studies the series illustrates how smart, strategic communications helps organizations deliver high levels of impact. Examples of the case studies on offer range from how the World Wildlife Fund’s communications strategy increased media coverage of illegal poaching by 270 percent, to how effective communications contributed to the repeal of the US military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell‘ policy.

The editors hope that the series prompts social sector leaders to rethink the role and potential of communications as a key means by which powerful impact and success can be achieved.


Check out the series here