Applying Social Marketing to Ecological Problems Through Consumer Research

ABSTRACT - This paper describes the application of a social marketing framework to a consumer research study designed to guide policymakers seeking to influence voluntary behavior that would benefit urban ecological systems. It differs from earlier environmental research in that it focuses on multiple environmental goals and on businesspeople as market targets. The research establishes the relevance of expected consequences, social norms, and perceived self-efficacy for behavioral intentions and offers several implications for future social marketing strategies directed at this target market.


Alan R. Andreasen and C. Benjamin Tyson (1994) ,"Applying Social Marketing to Ecological Problems Through Consumer Research", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. Joseph A. Cote and Siew Meng Leong, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 22-27.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1994      Pages 22-27


Alan R. Andreasen, Georgetown University

C. Benjamin Tyson, Academy for Educational Development


This paper describes the application of a social marketing framework to a consumer research study designed to guide policymakers seeking to influence voluntary behavior that would benefit urban ecological systems. It differs from earlier environmental research in that it focuses on multiple environmental goals and on businesspeople as market targets. The research establishes the relevance of expected consequences, social norms, and perceived self-efficacy for behavioral intentions and offers several implications for future social marketing strategies directed at this target market.


A major problem for evolving societies is that economic development and population growth place strong pressures on ecological systems. One of the more serious impacts is the effect of residential, commercial and industrial construction on urban landscapes. As more and more urban land is taken up with buildings, parking lots, roadways, and so forth, there are fewer and fewer square feet of vegetation remaining to cool the atmosphere, to assist in combatting air quality deterioration, to provide a habitat for wildlife, and to otherwise present a pleasing visual environment for urban residents.

It is, therefore, very much in society's interests that the negative effects of such construction on plants and trees be minimized. One of the most common mechanisms for achieving this is through land use planning and regulation. Most countries and local districts now have planning commissions and thick, complex books of ordinances that tell prospective builders what they may or may not do. Regulation policy is based on the premise that, in the absence of regulation and appropriate and diligent enforcement, individuals and organizations will take actions that are in their own self-interests and that society will often suffer unless economic costs are attached to those behaviors that are societally damaging.

An alternative to regulation is to seek voluntary action on the part of builders to act in ways that are societally beneficial. Programs by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and American Forests in the United States over the last few years have sought to encourage builders and developers to maximize the use of natural vegetation, including trees, on land they are developing. An excellent example of such efforts is the Global Releaf for New Communities project jointly sponsored by NAHB and American Forests which rewards builders and developers for exemplary efforts enhancing the physical environment on the properties on which they build. As a result of such programs, there are now many examples of builders who have significantly increased the number of trees on their properties, either through saving, replanting, or transplanting trees. However, a great deal more can still be accomplished.

One approach that can be brought to bear on this problem is that of social marketing. Social marketing is:

"the adaptation of commercial marketing technologies to the analysis, planning, execution and evaluation of programs designed to influence the voluntary behavior of target audiences in order to increase the physical, social and psychological well-being of individuals and of the society of which they are a part (Andreasen forthcoming)."

It is an approach that is seeing wide application in diverse fields, primarily in health care (Manoff 1976; Kotler and Roberto 1989). It has been effective in helping men and women quit smoking (King at al 1987), helping mothers in developing countries increase the survival chances of their children through immunization (Hornik et al. 1991), provision of Vitamin A (McDivitt and McDowell 1991), and getting farmers to increase agricultural production and soil conservation in developing countries (Mata in press). Social marketing has had a major effect in reducing cholesterol levels in adults in several communities (Farquar et al 1985; Lefebvre and Flora 1988). It is now being introduced into the area of environmental protection on a large scale. In 1993, the U.S. Agency for International Development launched GreenCOM, a multimillion dollar project using social marketing (among other technologies) "to provide communication and education support for developing-country environmental objectives worldwide"(GreenCOM, n.d., p.2)

Social marketing is also of increasing interest to those in the field of consumer behavior. Pioneering research and writing in social marketing has been carried out by leading ACR members including Jerry Zaltman (Kotler and Zaltman 1971), Michael Rothschild (1979), Paul Bloom (Bloom and Novelli 1981) and Alan Andreasen (1984). Recent efforts have included the work of Ronald Hill (1991, 1992), Susan Middlestadt (1993), Martin Fishbein (Fishbein et al 1993), Richard Pollay (Pollay 1990), and Gary Ford and Debra Ringold (Ford et al 1990). In a recent review, Malafarina and Loken cited 76 articles describing empirical research in social marketing appearing in the marketing literature since 1980 (Malafarina and Loken 1993). And, Andreasen, in his Association for Consumer Research Presidential Address in 1992, urged even more active involvement arguing that:

"involvement in social marketing is not just good for the soul. it can provide rich intellectual challenges to ACR members of widely varying interests. It can lead to new ways of thinking and teaching about the field. It can lead to new ideas and new publications. The insights we can derive will stretch our basic discipline of consumer behavior in ways that will benefit all of our target audiences. And it will increase our real-world relevance . . . " (Andreasen 1993, p. 4).

The present paper seeks to extend the application of social marketing to a new, but very critical environmental issue. As the Malafarina and Loken (1993) review made clear, social marketing research on environmental issues has focused almost exclusively on energy conservation and recycling (20 out of 23 articles) and typically has studied only individual householders. The study reported here is different in two important ways. First, it focuses on tree preservation behavior as a means of achieving multiple environmental goals, better air quality, soil conservation, and energy conservation. Second, it focuses on businesspeople as the primary target market rather than householders.


The study reported here was funded by American Forests and carried out in the summer of 1992. Its objective was to provide environmental policymakers with information that would help them develop strategies to influence the voluntary behavior of land developers, builder/developers, and builders to plant and save more trees on private single-family residential homesites. A secondary objective was to establish the value of a social marketing approach to this type of problem and target market.

The social marketing approach to behavior change that undergirded this study was based on several key assumptions and consumer behavior theoretical propositions:

1. It is taken as a given from the marketing literature that because the ultimate decision about whether to engage in a voluntary behavior is in the hands of each target audience member, effective behavior change programs must begin with an understanding of where target audience members stand with respect to the behavior to be advocated, and what is likely to lead them to act (and continue to act) in a socially desirable manner (Andreasen, forthcoming).

2. Based on preliminary focus group discussions with builders and discussions with key informants [For full details of study methodology, contact either author.], the decision to save or plant trees on new residential construction sites was determined to be a "high involvement" decision (Costley 1988; Celsi and Olson 1988). In such cases, the target audience may be expected to think a good deal about the decision before acting, secure information if needed, and (usually) move toward action in deliberate steps or stages (Prochaska and DiClemente 1983).

3. Focus group interviews suggested that builders think about three kinds of things when considering whether to undertake such high involvement behavior,:

a. Personal Consequences - their expectations about the good and bad outcomes (benefits and costs) that might come about if the behavior is undertaken (Ajzen 1991);

b. Social Influences - their perceptions of what others who are important to them want them to do and their motivations to comply with these wishes;

c. Self-Efficacy - their perceptions of whether they have the knowledge and skills necessary to carry out the contemplated behavior (cf. Bandura 1975).

4. As made clear in the work of Fishbein, Ajzen, and others (cf. Fishbein and Ajzen 1975; Ajzen and Fishbein 1980), these three sets of determinants will affect an individual's intention to act in the prescribed fashion. This intention will slowly (or sometimes quickly) increase until action is begun, often over a set of discrete stages.

5. Individuals will differ from one another in terms of the factors noted above as well as in terms of how a social marketer might reach them. And, while individuals will differ on all of these factors, they can usually be grouped into segments for purposes of strategic planning.

The present study employees these five key features to develop a set of message strategies to help American Forests and the Environmental Protection Agency increase the number of trees planted or saved on residential properties.


The genesis of the present study was a series of discussions with staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992 about the value of social marketing as a possible framework for changing behaviors that are of interest to the EPA. A subsequent grant from American Forests in the fall of that year permitted a pilot field test. The Environmental Protection Agency is particularly interested in maximizing the size and health of urban forests because of the salutary effects that trees can have on energy conservation, soil erosion control, and air pollution. Their primary interest in this study was to see if social marketing was at all useful in addressing this problem.

The study began with focus group discussions with builders, architects, landscape architects, and civil engineers in Connecticut in 1991. These discussions led to the development and pretesting of a four-page questionnaire to be sent to builders of residential homes. The field study was carried out with the assistance of the National Association of Home Builders which provided a systematic random sample of their builder and developer members in 12 Areas covering the North Central, South Central, North East, and South East regions of the United States. The questionnaire was mailed in two waves to 4,308 NAHB members. A total of 819 usable answers were returned for an overall response rate of 19.3%. Response rates differed significantly for three of the 12 NAHB Areas and there was also reason for speculating that the respondents were more interested in tree management issues than most builders and developers. Thus, for these reasons-and because mail questionnaires typically generate biased participation-the resulting sample should not be considered representative of all NAHB members. Further, NAHB members probably should not be considered representative of all builders. However, because the objective of this study was exploratory (i.e. to see if social marketing can be generally useful in changing environmentally relevant behaviors) and because principal interest was in relationships and differences across respondents, issues of representativeness were less relevant to the study's objectives.


Respondent Characteristics

The members of the sample were a diverse group. Just under 8% described themselves as land developers, 43% as builder/developers and 49% as builders only. About 30% built from 1 to 4 units in the preceding twelve months and a similar 31.7% had only 1 or 2 employees. At the other end of the scale, 27.7% of the respondents reported building more than 15 units and 16.7% had more than 10 employees. A small number of respondents were very large. Sixty-three built more than 50 units in the past 12 months. The respondents were almost all male [Because the sample was almost all male, male nouns and pronouns are used throughout this article.] and three out of four described their job title as President. They ranged in age from 20 to 77 with an average age of 45 years. They had been involved in home construction on average 17.8 years with a range from 1 to 50 years. One-half were college graduates with 11.3% having had some graduate school training. At the other end of the scale, one in five had a high school education or less.

Tree Management Practices

The majority of the builders and developers in this study claimed to be already actively involved in tree management and in increasing the number of trees on their properties. Two-thirds of the sample were already attempting to increase the number of trees on their properties and 60% used a tree professional (landscape architect, contractor and planner or urban forester) on the majority of their projects. When asked about their intentions to plant or save more trees in future as compared to their competitors [In focus groups, many builders indicated that they planned to plant or save more trees because local regulations forced them to. To identify builders who were relatively more aggressive, respondents were asked about their intentions with respect to competitors.], two thirds indicated that they were intending to do somewhat or much more than competitors and one-third said they would do the same or less. These intentions varied across the types of builder businesses.

Predictors of Intentions

To explore the value of the social marketing framework for developing message strategies to increase the number of trees planted or saved, we investigated the extent to which (a) personal consequences; (b) social influence and (c) perceived self-efficacy predicted intentions in both bivariate and a multivariate analyses.

Consequences. On the basis of our preliminary inquiries and focus group interviews, we isolated three measurable potential positive consequences (benefits) that most builders thought about when considering whether to save or plant more trees and two types of negative consequences (costs). The first benefit that we measured was whether placing more trees on properties would better meet customer demand. To assess this, we asked builders to indicate the proportion of their customers who would be interested in having more trees on their property after they moved in. A substantial majority of the sample (87%) indicated that at least half their customers were demanding more trees. The mean percentage for the sample was 72.7%. Understandably, builders constructing high-end homes were much more likely to report strong consumer demand for trees (p=.004) as were those building on lots of 2 or more acres (p=.01).

The second benefit our focus group informants mentioned was that having more trees would help save customers' heating and cooling costs. We asked our respondents whether they believed that this was, in fact, true-indicating whether it might occur to them that it is a benefit they could promote if they saved or planted more trees. Five in six respondents (83.8%) disagreed that "where you locate trees has little effect on a homeowner's heating and cooling costs," 60.8% saying they strongly disagreed with this (i.e. saw that trees could make a difference in heating and cooling costs).

A third consequence that builders considered was the effect of their behavior on their self-image. Many builders in this study indicated that they saw planting and saving trees to help the environment to be a matter of personal responsibility-actions from which they presumably gained considerable personal satisfaction. When we asked respondents the extent to which they agreed with the statement that "Planting or saving more trees on new homesites to save the environment is not the builder's responsibility," almost two out of three respondents (63.2%) disagreed with this statement and only 16.2% agreed.

Two measures were used to assess builders' perceptions of the costs of adding more trees. One question was a direct measure of the perceived costs of saving trees. We asked builders: "If there were many trees on a 1/2 acre lot on which you were planning to build, in your opinion, how much would saving more trees affect your construction costs?" About 15.3% said they did not know. About 27.2% thought that it would have no effect or would actually decrease costs. The majority, however, believed that saving trees would definitely increase their costs.

The second cost that focus group informants indicated was important was the increased time that would be necessary for supervision on the job site to make sure that trees were not damaged during the construction process. Sixty-five percent of the sample agreed (33.7% strongly and 31.3% somewhat) with the statement that "Trying to save trees on a site means that I must spend extra time supervising."

Bivariate analyses of the relationship of each of the five "consequence" variables with builder intentions indicated that three of the five were statistically significant predictors of intentions (all at p <.001). All three factors were perceived benefits of planting or saving more trees: perceived customer demand, perceptions that saving trees is the builder's responsibility, and perceptions that proper tree location would save homeowners' heating and cooling costs. Perceived costs (dollar and supervisory costs of saving more trees) were not associated with intentions. A multiple regression analysis of all five variables indicated that the "heating-cooling" benefit did not contribute significantly to the prediction of intentions beyond the other two benefits.

Influence of Others. People do not take actions in a social vacuum. They often watch what others do and take their cues from those behaviors. They often act in ways to conform with or try to impress these "significant others." But this tendency is not universal: some individuals pay more attention to others while others pay less. In this study, we explored this potential influence in several ways. First, we asked respondents what they thought other builders were doing by asking them to agree or disagree with the statement "Most builders in my area do not worry about the trees on the sites where they build." The clear consensus appeared to be that other builders were clearly not worrying about trees very much. Two in five respondents (42.4%) agreed with the statement that others were not worrying much and a further 32.8% were neutral. Only 24.8% disagreed that others were not worrying about trees.

Thus, it would appear that there is not strong pressure from competitors to plant or save more trees. On the other hand, those who are more active in saving or planting trees may perceive there to be more group pressure. However, this is not the case in the present study-in fact the reverse is true. Those planning to plant or save many more trees than competitors are significantly more likely to agree with the statement that other builders do not worry about trees. A possibility here is that the builders planning to increase the number of trees on their homesites do so because they see themselves as innovators standing above a crowd of other builders and developers who do not care about trees very much at all. This speculation appears to be borne out by the data. We asked respondents the extent to which they agreed with the statement that "I like to be ahead of my competition in trying out new building techniques." While there was virtually no difference between those planting fewer, the same or somewhat more trees than competitors, those who were intending to save or plant many more trees were much more likely than this group to agree that they were innovators (p<.001).

It appears, then, that peer pressure from competitors is not important in inducing increases in numbers of trees on property because most other builders are seen as not worrying about this problem (although respondents are responsive to customers' desires for more trees). Because peer pressure is important in other social marketing contexts, we needed to ask whether peer pressure could be an important source of influence if, for example, a future campaign emphasized the innovative tree planting/saving practices of leading builders and developers. Do builders appear to pay attention to what other builders are doing and what other builders think of what they are doing? The answer appears to be yes. Four out of five (80.7%) respondents agreed to some degree with the statement that "It is important to me that other builders/developers think highly of the houses I build." Further, about one-half (50.4%) agreed with the statement: "There are specific builders in my area that I watch or talk to in order to learn about the best homebuilding ideas." Finally, one in three respondents indicated that "discussions with others" was one of the three most important sources of new information about building industry subjects they used. However, bivariate analyses indicated that none of these measures predicts intentions to plant or save more trees. Thus, we must conclude that peer influence remains only a potential source of behavior change, not one that already appears influential in increasing the number of trees on urban homesites!

Self-Efficacy. Does a builder's perception of his ability to save or plant more trees affect intentions to do so? Ability can have two components, knowledge and skills. Builders need to know how to take care of trees and have to be able to work with others to make it happen. In the study, we measured tree management knowledge both objectively (through questions on tree-management practices)and subjectively (through questions on self-perceived knowledge), and found that the builders in this study think that they know more about tree management than they really do. Further, we found that perceived self-knowledge is not related to intentions to plant more trees while actual knowledge is. Thus, a person's perception that he lacks "tree knowledge" is not a barrier to increasing the number of trees on properties. On the other hand, those who are more eager to increase the number of trees on their properties, in fact, do know more about tree management than those who are not. While the direction of causation is not at all proven in a one-time cross-sectional study such as this, [It is, of course, quite possible that being actively involved in planting/saving more trees may lead to more knowledge, not vice versa.] one may hypothesize that becoming more knowledgeable may really contribute to intentions to plant or save more trees. It may be that one really does need to know more about trees in order to have a sense that one can actually "make it happen."

Builders in the focus groups also said that there were other factors that could affect a builder's abilities to plant or save more trees. These included:

* Subcontractors who will not cooperate

* Tree regulations that are limiting

* Local officials who may not cooperate

* The nature of the trees themselves, i.e. the fact that they are highly vulnerable when being replanted in the process of construction.

In the research instrument, we asked respondents questions that would suggest whether these factors over which they may have limited control were seen as potential barriers to saving and planting trees. If respondents agreed that a factor was barrier, this could diminish their sense of self-efficacy-i.e. the extent to which they felt that they could actually succeed in saving or planting more trees. Both bivariate and multivariate analyses indicated that three measures of self-efficacy were predictive of intentions to save/plant more trees. These three measures were:

* The respondent's objective knowledge about tree management.

* The belief that local officials will not cooperate to help the builder save trees

* The belief that replanted trees will not live after replanting

Multivariate Analysis

The final stage of the analysis was an attempt to use all three sets of predictor variables, consequences, social influence and self-efficacy, as predictors of intentions. Results in Table 1 reveal that (a) factors from all three categories are predictive; (b) overall adjusted R2 is 14.9; and (c) the single best predictor of intentions is objective knowledge about tree management.


These findings suggest three possible message strategies:

A Benefits-based Strategy:

* Increase builders' awareness of customers' demand for trees.

* Impress upon builders their responsibility for helping the environment through better tree management.

* Increase builder's perceptions of the benefits of trees:

* To increase land/property values

* To increase the desirability of the physical space for customers

* To increase energy savings, which could be marketed to customers

A Social Influence-based Strategy

* Indicate to builders that being assertive about saving and planting trees is a way to show innovative leadership in the community (e.g. awards programs are excellent ways of doing this).

A Self-Efficacy-based Strategy

* Decrease builders' concern that officials will not cooperate to help save trees while, at the same time, work with local officials to encourage them to be more cooperative.

* Increase builders' factual knowledge about proper tree handling practices through lectures, manuals, videotapes and the like.

* Teach builders how to minimize the chances that trees will not survive the construction process (e.g. during replanting).

Clearly, the analysis makes clear that "benefits" followed by "self-efficacy" strategies should prove most effective.


These results must be considered tentative and exploratory, particularly since the sample is likely to be unrepresentative of all residential builders. However, the results appear to offer strong support for the social marketing approach to behavior change. Data yielded insights on message strategies involving the three basic determinants of behavior, perceived consequences, social influence and self-efficacy. Although not reported here, channels for communicating these messages were clearly identified in the study and bases for market segmentation established. The research has provided a number of insights of value to agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, American Forests, and the National Association of Home Builders in the United States which wish to pursue social marketing strategies to induce voluntary efforts on the part of builders and developers to increase the number and location of trees in urban forests.




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Alan R. Andreasen, Georgetown University
C. Benjamin Tyson, Academy for Educational Development


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1994

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