Branding Perspectives on Social Marketing


Kevin Lane Keller (1998) ,"Branding Perspectives on Social Marketing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 299-302.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 299-302


Kevin Lane Keller, Duke University


The concept of brand equity and the resulting guidelines as to how to build, measure, and manage brand equity have had significant impact in academic and industry circles in recent years (Aaker 1991; Farquhar 1989; Keller 1993). As branding principles have become more widely embraced, new applications have emerged (Keller 1998). The purpose of this paper is to outline several important branding concepts and principles and consider what insights are gained from their application to social marketing programs designed to address public health problems.


In a fundamental sense, branding involves attaching a "label" (for identification) and "meaning" (for understanding) to a product, service, person, idea, etc. That is, through the manner by which brands and their supporting marketing programs are designed and implemented, brands achieve a certain level of awareness and become linked to a set of associations in consumers’ minds. By impacting brand knowledge in these ways, brands can be thought of as labeling products and providing meaning. Strong brands, in particular, come to be seen by onsumers as highly familiar and characterized by strong, favorable, and unique associations.

The resulting meaning imbued in brands can be quite profound. The relationship between a brand and the consumer can be viewed as a type of "bond" or "pact." Consumers offer their trust and loyalty with the implicit understanding that the brand will "behave" in certain ways. To the extent that consumers realize advantages from purchase and as long as they derive satisfaction from consumption, consumers are likely to continue to buy the brand. The benefits that consumers realize from brands may not only be purely functional in nature. Brands can serve as symbolic devices, allowing consumers to project their self-image. Certain brands are associated with use by certain types of people and thus reflect different values or traits. As a result, consuming these brands may be a means by which consumers can communicate to others-or even to themselves-the type of person they are or would like to be.

In a social marketing context, the issue then becomes what labels and meaning to connect to desired, or perhaps even undesired, behaviors as well as to the personal or social costs and benefits that result from these behaviors. For example, the word "sober" may be used to describe a series of behaviors, and meaning may be attached to it by identifying relevant benefits. Creating brand equity for a set of positive behaviors may involve defining the desired behaviors in terms of carefully selected words or phrases and then making sure that individuals can "feel good" about doing the "right thing" by understanding and appreciating the benefits they accrue. Thus, one challenge for branding in social marketing programs is how to ensure that individuals properly value the immediate benefits of desirable behaviors, i.e., feel part of an exchange. Along these lines, in assessing the challenges of social marketing, Rothschild (1997) notes, "...individuals are often asked to act in ways that are in opposition to their own perceptions of their own self-interest. An additional problem is that there is often no temporally close and explicit payback in return for their behavior."

The purpose of this paper is to examine the application of basic branding principles to social marketing and public health issues. Specifically, the paper reviews the role of branding in social marketing programs and highlights several important branding guidelines as they apply to addressing an important public health problem-combating drug abuse. The paper concludes by identifying future research priorities in the study of social marketing from a branding perspective.


Although branding traditionally has been associated with products and services, there has been an increasing realization that branding principles are relevant to other entities such as people, places, ideas, and so on. Applying branding to social marketing programs and public health issues, however, poses several unique challenges. Social marketing, as any marketing, involves exchange. Individuals are asked to engage in certain personally and/or socially desirable behaviors. The benefits they receive in return for these actions, though, may be fairly intangible and seemingly removed, especially with respect to the more immediate benefits they might receive in exchange for engaging in undesirable behaviors.

Branding may provide an important function in social marketing programs by helping individuals to communicate and signal to themselves as well as others that they are engaging in desirable behaviors so that are better able to realize more immediate benefits and receive positive reinforcement. For example, by displaying visible symbols or by describing themselves with a categorical label that, in either case, contained specific meaning with respect to a public health issue, ndividuals may be able to achieve greater immediate satisfaction if they feel that they have been "credited" or acknowledged as having avoided undesirable behaviors or having embraced desirable behaviors.

In other words, branding personally and/or socially desirable behaviors could help individuals receive more immediate rewards from the public approval and recognition of others as well as from the benefits of self-expression and personal approval and recognition. Each encounter with another person may be seen as a "transaction" in that the individual receives positive feedback, either explicitly or implicitly, in return for having been able to behave in a proper way. In this way, branding would play the role of making the benefits of socially desirable behavior more immediate and more tangible to an individual on a continually repeated basis over time.

In summary, branding may provide a useful function in social marketing programs by facilitating a form of "exchange" which otherwise might not take place. In particular, individuals may be made aware of personal or social benefits that they could easily have otherwise downplayed or overlooked all together. Next, to put forth some more specific branding guidelines with respect to social marketing, two important branding topics are discussed-what aspect(s) of a public health issue should be branded and how these types of brands should be created.


Social marketing requires that individuals engage in certain behaviors seen as personally and/or socially desirable and avoid certain other behaviors seen as personally and/or socially undesirable. One important question then is which sets of behaviors should be branded-the desirable or undesirable behaviors-or whether both sets of behaviors should be branded. Relatedly, another question is whether 1) the benefits that accrue to individuals from engaging in the right set of behaviors or 2) the costs that are incurred by individuals from engaging in the wrong set of behaviors should also be branded in some way.

Branding behaviors is certainly feasible in that branding does not have to involve only physical products. Branding services, for example, generally involves branding intangible dimensions of service delivery and quality. The main distinction with social marketing though is that the actual behaviors-or outcomes from those behaviors-as they relate to the public health issue itself need to be branded. For example, in terms of applying branding to combating drug abuse, one or more brands could be created for positive behaviors (e.g., becoming or staying sober, clean, drug-free, etc.) as well as the resulting benefits (e.g., physical, mental and spiritual health and well-being). Alternatively, negative behaviors (e.g., drug dependent, addicted, etc.) as well as the resulting costs (e.g., physical, mental, and spiritual illnesses or decay) could be branded instead of or in addition to the positive behaviors or benefits.

In general, the decision as to which types of behaviors and outcomes to brand would seem to depend on factors related to their salience and importance with respect to achieving the desired social marketing objective. Branding will have the most impact when individuals seem to be overlooking positive considerations and downplaying negative considerations with respect to the public health issue. Although it might seem that branding the desired behavior or state of behavior would generally be the most appropriate approach-e.g., to effectively communicate the right associations and behaviors-there might be instances when branding undesirable behaviors and their costs might be advantageous.

For example, one challenging aspect of branding that poses problems for social marketers is the existence of intangible associations that come to characterize certain undesirable bhaviors. As noted above, a number of product brands accrue their equity from considerations wholly unrelated to product performance itself-associations to the type of person, the situation in which it is used, and so on. Thus, many of the sources of equity for product brands reside in the positive imagery that surrounds the product as a result of how it is branded and marketed. In a social marketing context, however, intangible user associations sometimes come to characterize certain undesirable behaviors that are seen in a favorable light by certain individuals, e.g., that smoking is "cool" or getting "wasted" on drugs is glamorous. Social marketing campaigns can attempt to address this problem, as they already have to some extent, by portraying users in a negative light through advertising and other communications. Unfortunately, these efforts can be easily counteracted by other forms of communications, e.g., movies and television, beyond the control of social marketing programs. An important issue in designing social marketing programs is to understand the severity of this problem, i.e., the importance of these user associations and the best means to counteract them. If they pose a serious problem, it may be necessary to explicitly brand individuals who engage in these negative types of behaviors (e.g., as "losers") to provide more focus to these marketing communication efforts.


Assuming that branding of desired behaviors could play a beneficial role in a social marketing program, the question then becomes how exactly brands would be created under those circumstances. In this section, we consider how the "labeling" function of branding-in terms of using multiple brand elements and sub-brands-and the "meaning" function of branding-in terms of employing integrated marketing communication programs, push and pull strategies, and leveraged secondary associations-can be implemented as part of a social marketing program which is being designed to address a public health problem. In each case, after briefly reviewing how these branding tactics operate for product brands in general, we suggest how they might be applied specifically in a social marketing setting, with particular emphasis on the challenge of combating drug abuse.

Use of multiple brand elements.

A brand is more than a name and can consist of multiple brand elements. A brand can be made up of names, logos, symbols, characters, packaging, slogans, etc.-i.e., any trademarkable piece of information that serves to identify and differentiate a brand. To build brand equity, marketers typically employ a set of brand elements where each element, perhaps in different ways, helps to enhance awareness and communicate the proper image. With respect to designing a social marketing program, one branding issue then is which brand elements should be chosen to represent the desired behaviors.

For example, the desired behavior of "being sober" may be reinforced by a symbol (e.g., a cocktail glass and/or needle within a circle and diagonal line to suggest "no"), a slogan (e.g., "Stay Smart. Stay Sober." or "Live for Tomorrow."), etc. Cause-related organizations and public service campaigns have adopted multiple brand elements in their marketing programs, employing names (e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving-MADD), logos (e.g., AIDS’ red ribbons), characters (e.g., Smokey the Bear), and slogans (e.g., "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste"). These brand elements have been applied less frequently, however, to the actual behaviors themselves. Employing a vivid, memorable set of brand elements can provide a solid foundation to creating branding effects in a social marketing program.

Creation of sub-brands.

Most products are branded with a combination of multiple brand names. For example, many brands combine a family brand name with an individual brand name to create a "sub-brand" (e.g., Hershey’s Kisses, Levi’s Dockers, or Courtyard by Marriott). Multiple brand name components allow for more information to be conveyed about a product. Similarly, many brands also encompass branded ingredients (e.g., IBM personal computers with Intel’s Pentium microprocessors inside). With respect to social marketing, one branding issue is whether any relevant "sub-brands" need to be created by branding specific actions and behaviors and linking them to the overall desired or undesired behavioral objective.

For example, the desired behavior of "staying sober" may involve a number of more specific actions or behavior such as 1) avoiding potentially tempting people or situations or 2) engaging in rewarding, healthy behaviors through diet, exercise, etc. These more specific behaviors could be branded in a way to identify and link them together, e.g., "Act Right," "Eat Right," "Exercise Right," and so on. By branding these specific behaviors, they may become more salient and meaningful, making it easier for individuals to achieve the overall behavioral objectives.

Employ integrated marketing communications.

Building product brands requires building brand knowledge structures. Consumers must be aware of the brand and link the brand to strong, favorable, and unique associations. From a branding or brand equity perspective, the manner by which this knowledge is created does not matter-only the resulting associations in memory. Accordingly, marketers should consider a full range of communication options-on the basis of cost and effectiveness criteria-to build brand equity, e.g., media advertising (broadcast or print), promotions, sponsorship, direct response and interactive media, public relations, and so on.

In designing these integrated marketing communication programs, consistency and complementarity considerations are important. Some similar information should be contained in each communication option to offer consistency and facilitate the formation of strong and favorable associations. At the same time, different media options have different advantages and disadvantages. By maximizing the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages of various communication options, necessary complementarity of communication options can be achieved.

Similarly, social marketers should employ a range of communication options beyond traditional advertising to brand socially desirable behaviors. For example, sponsorship might be a means to increase the salience and prominence of the brand as well as help to link it to other desired associations; interactive web sites could be employed to provide immediate, personally relevant information; and so on. To illustrate, an integrated marketing communication program to combat drug abuse may use media advertising (TV, radio, and print) as a centerpiece but also supplement these efforts with public relations and publicity. A web site could be created ( which could include information on correct behaviors, means to overcome barriers to those behaviors, testimonials, etc. Such a capability may be particularly important given the need to be able to communicate immediate, personal information to individuals struggling to overcome personal addictions.

Blend push and pull strategies.

Just as integrated marketing communications programs involve more than advertising, marketing programs as a whole involve more than integrated marketing communication programs. Strong brands often blend "pull" strategies targeted to consumers with "push" strategie targeted to channel members and other intermediaries. From a social marketing perspective, the question becomes who are the relevant intermediaries who could influence individual behavior with respect to the public health issue? Obviously, members of the medical community or health field who are in contact with individuals could play an important role. Thus, their understanding of the branding program may be critical.

For example, blending push and pull strategies with respect to fighting drug abuse might involve providing branding information to medical representatives involved in treatment and rehabilitation, support staff at schools and business, and other individuals who may come into contact with potentially susceptible individuals-especially those who have already lapsed. An individual’s most satisfying "exchanges" may come from the approval and positive feedback of these various people. Additionally, they may also be in the position to best pass along brand-related information.

Leverage secondary associations.

Finally, the last way to build brand knowledge structures and brand equity is to borrow it from another person, place, or thing. By linking the brand to another entity that has its own associations, consumers may infer that these associations also characterize the brand. For example, to combat drug abuse, spokespeople could be introduced with the appropriate credibility to enhance the meaning of the "Stay Sober" brand. These could include individuals with past histories of drug abuse and who have "come clean" or individuals with no such histories and who have gained outstanding achievements in their fields.


This paper has put forth a set of ideas as to how branding perspectives and principles can be useful in a social marketing context to address public health problems. Many of the notions that were raised and practices that were identified are not necessarily new to social marketers and may have been already adopted as part of social marketing programs in the past. Nevertheless, some of the specific guidelines that were put forth and which characterize product marketing programs may have been overlooked or ignored to varying degrees in these previous programs. As a result, social marketing programs may not have always achieved the full depth and breadth of activities as which characterize well-branded product marketing programs. According to the guidelines presented above, a well-branded social marketing program would employ a complete range of different types and levels of branding elements, different marketing communication options, and different means to create brand associations.

Nevertheless, in an area as new as branding and in an application as new as social marketing, numerous research opportunities obviously exist. Perhaps the broadest but most important issue is what public health problems and social marketing programs best lend themselves to including a branding application. Some of the principles noted above, e.g., employing multiple brand elements, would seem relevant for any social marketing program. Other principles, e.g., the creation of sub-brands, would be more dependent on the existence of behaviors and benefits that would be made more useful by heightening their salience through branding.

Fundamentally, the issue becomes when does labeling behaviors change an individual’s perceptions of a behavior. In other words, when do individuals think of behaviors differently-either before or after the fact-just from the name given to it? Thus, to better understand how branding can benefit social marketing, it will be necessary to start with the process by which branding can create desirable behaviors and eliminate undesirable behaviors. The argumets that were made above were that branding may help to: 1) identify and clarify the nature of the desired behaviors with respect to the public health issue and 2) communicate and signal to others and to one’s self that the individual was engaging in these desirable behaviors. With respect to the first function-identification and clarification-relevant related research might deal with salience factors and how the framing, editing, labeling, etc. of information could change behaviors. With respect to the second function-communication and signaling-relevant related research might examine the symbolic function of brands in general and how consumers respond to discrepancies with actual and ideal self-images. In particular, how do brands help consumers to satisfy these social goals and how might that vary depending on the nature of what was being branded?

Other future research priorities deal with more specific issues concerning how branding principles can be applied to social marketing and in what ways these applications may differ from applications in other areas. These research questions deal more with the optimal design and implementation of branding and marketing programs to address public health issues. First, what are the appropriate guidelines for choosing brand elements and devising sub-brands and brand hierarchies? For example, visual symbols might be particularly important as a means of more subtle communication. Second, what aspects of the marketing program are most effective at creating public health brands? In particular, how can social marketing programs go beyond advertising to create brand awareness and image through other means? Addressing these questions will force research in social marketing to adopt a broader perspective with new conceptual models and empirical tests.


Aaker, David A. (1991), Managing Brand Equity. New York: The Free Press.

Farquhar, Peter H. (1989), "Managing Brand Equity," Marketing Research, 1 (September), 24-33.

Keller, Kevin Lane (1993), "Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Managing Customer-Based Brand Equity" Journal of Marketing, 57 (March), 1-22.

Keller, Kevin Lane (1998), Strategic Brand Management, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Rothschild, Michael L. (1997) "Carrots, Sticks, and Promises: A Conceptual Framework of Social Marketing For, and Behavior Management of, Public Health and Social Issues," working paper, University of Wisconsin.



Kevin Lane Keller, Duke University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25 | 1998

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