Updated on 02/03/2023
Social marketing: an introduction
Marketing has many approaches to attract the customer: the rational one, the sensory one, and the emotional one. Yet, at a time when consumers are becoming more and more attentive and responsible, social marketing becomes a relevant strategy that also helps the company support their community.
Before talking about social marketing, let’s think about this: what is a consumer looking for when he has to buy a product? What are the levers that have a decisive influence on the choice of buying one product over another?
These are all common questions when you’re working to understand consumer behavior and build a truly effective marketing strategy. The answer to these questions is not a foregone conclusion.
You can argue that the consumer is a mysterious subject whose choices remain uncertain until the moment before he or she makes a purchase. There are many different motivations that can push a consumer to buy something, yet isn’t always easy to understand the weight and relevance of those factors.
Convenience, but not only
At first glance, it could be said that the price of the product and its technical characteristics are decisive aspects when it comes to an expenditure. When two products have the same level of performance, the quality-price ratio always wins. But this is not true! The market is full of examples of products that are more popular even though there are competing goods that have similar characteristics.
Just think of Apple, whose quality of phones and other devices is not a point of discussion among consumers, but which is often preferred for reasons other than price or performance, since it is able to give “something more” to its customers.
It is this “more” that contains the mix of more or less rational motivations that makes the difference and that every company must be able to intercept.
In light of this, we can understand why, in recent years neuromarketing has become of interest. Neuromarketing is the discipline that applies neuroscientific knowledge and practices to marketing with the goal of analyzing irrational processes and identifying the motivations that unconsciously push a consumer to buy a specific item or to feel emotionally involved with a certain brand.
The senses of purchase
Neuromarketing has shown, for example, that our senses play a key role in pushing us to buy even without us noticing it.
For example, eggs that are gray and brown in color (in other words, not white) are seen by customers as healthier and free of processing (focus.it). This is a sensory branding at work because it exploits a truth: consumers buy with your eyes first.
The same obviously also applies to the sense of smell: it is no coincidence that in many clothing stores there is an intense and recognizable scent in the air, just like the strong smell of grilled meat that you can smell in a fast food or coffee in a gas station.
It has been shown that the right scent can increase in-store sales by up to 80%, since it can amplify the other sensations that a consumer feels at the time of purchase (indipendent.co.uk).
Precisely for this reason, when opening a point of sale, it is important to take into account the directives of olfactory marketing in order to create a positive atmosphere whose memory is imprinted in the mind of the customer, who will be pushed to come back later to try the same pleasant customer experience again.
The reason for purchase
However, it is not just the five senses that play a key role. Purchasing choices are also based on more rational motivations, such as the company’s ability to respond quickly to consumer needs or the fact that customers can easily purchase products from a physical store or through a smartphone, for example.
These are just two of the many aspects that make up the customer experience, which is another very important factor in pushing an individual to buy.
Moreover, for some time now, the close relationship between the quality of the customer experience and sales has been highlighted: as the former increases, the latter inevitably increases (medium.com). This is because the action of buying does not end with the simple purchase of an object; on the contrary, there are a series of aspects that are as important for the customer as the technical characteristics of the product.
For example, if the customer experience is personalized and perfectly built on the customer’s characteristics, the customer is more willing to accept the purchase.
The more the consumer experience offered is omnichannel, i.e. where it makes use of multiple communication channels and the touchpoints, there are positive benefits for both sales and the customer relationship, also thanks to the enhancement of points of sale.
Senses, reason, and heart
In summary, when a consumer buys, he does so based on irrational drivers, such as the senses, and rational drivers, which we can call the customer experience. The customer experience collects all the aspects of the purchase that meet the pragmatic needs of each consumer.
However, there is another element that plays a fundamental role in the purchasing choice, namely the emotional component.
We talked about the importance of the brand experience in another post, showing how a company can make its products even more desirable if it can emotionally communicate the functional aspects of the customer experience.
In this way, those who buy do so because they adhere to the philosophy behind a brand, which stops being a simple logo.
If this is a strategically advantageous resource for the brand, on the other hand it represents a considerable commitment for the company. Given the close bond that is built between the company and the consumer, who will inevitably have expectations towards the latter, the customer will want to feel somehow “represented” in terms of the company’s actions and choices.
After all, this is the natural consequence: if the purchase no longer fulfills the simple functional need, but involves the consumer in a deeper, more emotional and personal way, then it becomes an action based on “identity”. In addition, if the company becomes a bearer of values that the customer shares, then the customer can expect from the company the same concrete initiatives that carry these values forward.
If the consumer becomes responsible, marketing becomes social
This is why social marketing, defined by its early scholars Kotler and Zaltman as “the use of marketing strategies and techniques to influence a target group to accept, change or abandon voluntary behavior in order to gain an advantage for individuals or society as a whole”, is becoming increasingly relevant (source: pmi.it).
After all, social marketing is a key business tool at a time like this when consumers are increasingly aware of their influence and are increasingly attentive to issues of sustainability and ethical consumption.
This is also thanks to younger generations — Millennials and Generation Z — who are concerned about environmental causes and who are willing to effect change through their purchases.
For example, 90% of young Italians are willing to pay a higher price to buy fashion products made in an ethical and sustainable way, which leads them to prefer Made in Italy, generally perceived as higher quality and more respectful of the supply chain.
This has led companies in all sectors to adopt a Corporate Social Responsibility strategy, of which social marketing is an essential aspect, which takes the form of concrete projects and behaviors aimed at improving the context in which the company operates, with particular attention to the social stakeholders of reference.
Improving the social context is worthwhile
After all, social marketing is a formidable communicative element that can offer a company tangible benefits.
First of all, a company that engages and communicates its social efforts is perceived to be an active part of the community where it operates, able to take a position on relevant issues, which is required by consumers.
Secondly, demonstrating one’s commitment with concrete facts and specific activities improves the company’s standing for consumers, who can finally recognize in it a kindred spirit, who takes on the same battles. In other words, social marketing significantly improves brand reputation and strengthens brand identity, making tangible the company values that reflect the values of consumers themselves.
A third advantage is that when a company implements a social marketing strategy it tends to become more relevant than its competitors.
For example, some percentage of consumers may feel that it’s important for a brand to produce vegan or green product lines, thus having the perception of being really listened to by the company itself.
Some examples of social marketing
What are the actions that a brand must take for its social marketing to be effective? In reality, there are many and they vary both in “scope” and in the extent of the commitment you want to make.
For example, Google has long since started a series of projects to establish itself as a socially aware brand and one of these is Google Green, a CSR initiative that focuses on environmental sustainability.
Since it embarked on this path, the company has managed to reduce energy costs by up to 50% in its data centers alone, thanks, among other things, to an extensive program to promote recycling among its employees and the investment of one billion dollars for the development and implementation of renewable energy projects.
The same thing has been done by the Italian Coop group, which has been working for years to bring energy efficiency to its stores, installing a system of photovoltaic panels in several stores. These initiatives were supported by a perfect communication strategy, based on the activation of certain social channels and the strategic involvement of some influencers in order to emphasize the relevance of this type of actions.
These are two examples of how larger companies approach social marketing, but as mentioned above, social marketing can also be made of small gestures that mark a change in the company’s pace.
Think of Barilla’s recent decision to eliminate the famous plastic window from its packaging for the British market, in order to make them 100% recyclable. The Parma-based company has not only found a relatively inexpensive way to make an impact, it has also shown that the brand knows how to get in tune with areas that are important for consumers at the moment, such as recycling and eco-sustainability.
In addition, by eliminating the plastic insert, Barilla has also redefined its identity, taking part in and supporting a current social change, something that is explained by the phrase that appears in place of the window: “No more plastic windows. Changing our world one package at a time.”
A final clarification
What we’ve described here is only one aspect of social marketing which, in reality, is a much broader category. It is, in fact, possible to make a distinction according to who adopts this approach.
If it is the company who does it, then it usually falls within the context of Corporate Social Responsibility, as mentioned above; if, on the other hand, it is the non-profit associations, then the considerations to be made are a bit different.
First of all, because the purpose is no longer monetizable, but only aims to emphasize some issues of shared interest, whether it is awareness campaigns against health concerns or bad habits, or the protection of specific categories of people or the survival of entire populations or habitats.
In this case, in fact, the real competition is the indifference of a society that is often too distracted or busy that does not acknowledge or deal with certain issues.
However, this does not mean that this isn’t relevant, on the contrary. Both the benefits and the techniques to be applied are the same also because in this case, you are not trying to “sell” a product but an idea, and the expected return is not the profit, but change, the time, and the attention of people; these resources are all scarce in the same way.