The Private Sector in Social Marketing and Social Change; and How to Build a Career to Make a Difference in the World

By Bill Novelli

Founder Business for Impact, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University

I’ve been around for a while, and I’ve gone from being a commercial marketer to a social marketer to a PR maven to a general manager to a teacher. But if someone says, what do you know? What’s your discipline? I say marketing. It’s what I do and how I think.

My personal goal, developed and evolved over many years, has been to make significant contributions to solving major social problems. There have been a lot of major changes over the course of my career. Technology advances…and hazards, have been enormous. And they have influenced how we access and consume media, which influences how we learn and think and vote. And the biggest change of all – we fear – is climate change.

In this article I want to focus on three changes that pertain to social impact.

First is the role of the private sector in advancing the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.

When I began my career at package goods giant Unilever, the idea of creating social good as a corporation or as a business person was an afterthought – something to pursue after succeeding at making money. Unilever’s annual report was a worldwide story of products and profit, but hardly a word of sustainability or social impact.

But now, things are changing, and for the better – for the betterment of corporations, for their employees and for society. In our Business for Impact center at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, two of our key operating principles are that business can and should be a powerful force for good, and that complex societal problems can only be solved by leaders working effectively across sectors: private public and civil society.

To advance these ideas:

  • We work with companies to do well by doing good – that is, improving their business performance by and through creating social and environmental value.
  • We help nonprofits to be more sustainable and achieve greater impact by assisting them to increase revenues and strengthen their corporate partnerships.
  • We enlist government agencies to adopt innovative approaches to advance the public good, from promoting good nutrition to fostering the employment of people with disabilities.
  • We educate students to be high-impact leaders in their careers, their communities and in the world. Every student should understand that there is more than one bottom line, and they can make a meaningful difference.​

As we’re probably all aware, public trust in institutions is declining. That includes government, business, the media and in the U.S. certainly, our elected leaders.

The lack of trust in business is due to many factors, including scandals like Volkswagen and its cheating on pollution tests, Wells Fargo signing up customers for credit cards without their permission, and Uber, with its “step on toes” marketing practices and harassment of women. The public is also concerned about companies’ impact on the environment, including water and air pollution.

But at the same time, the public has come to expect, even demand that companies do good – to take a positive stand on social issues, to support communities and to invest in causes and nonprofits.

And companies understand this. The old adage that “the only business of business is business” is just about over. The idea that profit is the only bottom line is fading. And it never really did ring true. Companies have always had the responsibility to be ethical, legal and good corporate citizens.

Of course, there are plenty of critics of business as a force for good, with justification. A recent book, Winners Take All, argues that the super-wealthy, the .001 percent who might be called philanthropic plutocrats, believe they are helping make things better, when instead they are actually making things worse through heavy investments in social issues with little understanding of what they are doing or of the consequences. And then they gather at Davos to talk about making the world a better place.

Adam Smith’s concept of the “invisible hand” is still accepted by many. By this precept, if companies simply do everything they can to boost profits, the result will be more jobs and increased social good. But that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the way things are turning out today. Some say that capitalism is at a crossroads. In response, many business stakeholders – investors, management, employees, and consumers – are all searching for ways to better integrate people, planet and profit.

I have a strategy called “Talk and Fight.” That is, working with industry where you can, while also working against irresponsible behavior. “Talk and Fight.” There are few if any permanent enemies in this world, only permanent principles and interests.

So, we don’t have to be total champions for corporate interests, but we can be strong advocates for businesses being involved and at the table in social problem solving.

Companies can also play constructive roles in speaking out on social issues, which the public and many of their employees increasingly demand. For many corporations, this is a tough balancing act, since there is often considerable disagreement on social issues, from same sex marriage to the rights of transgender people to gun safety – the scourge of American society.

For corporations, it’s people, planet and yes, of course, profit.  And integrating social and environmental strategies into core business can help to achieve all three. It’s not all perfect, of course, but companies are trending toward greater social responsibility, towards doing well by doing good. We can all benefit from this, and we can all strive to keep it going.

The second change I have experienced is a broadened application of social marketing.

Phil Kotler, the academic guru of social marketing and his co-author, Nancy Lee, define the concept as “a process that applies marketing principles and techniques to create, communicate and deliver value in order to influence priority audience behaviors that benefit society … as well as the individual.

So the objective is to change behaviors to benefit individuals and society as a whole.

When I learned my commercial marketing trade at Unilever, we naturally focused on targeted consumers – individuals whom we wanted to try and buy our products. Later, when we started and built Porter Novelli into a pioneering social marketing agency and eventually a worldwide PR agency, this same focus on individual behavior change permeated our work.

But to focus on the individual, while critically important, is not enough. To create lasting social change, we have to operate at two levels.

  1. At the broad environmental level, we need to make desired behaviors normative and expected by changing society’s perspective. And the best levers for doing that are policy, media and technology.
  2. And yes, we also have to work on individual behaviors, often at the community and family level, using our basic marketing skills.

So policy advocacy – legislative, regulatory and judicial – is extremely important in achieving and sustaining social change. A good example is banning smoking in public places. This is a policy change that has had a profound effect on social norms and individual behaviors.

Kotler and Lee draw distinctions among three approaches to behavior change: Education, which they call “Show Me,” Social Marketing, which they call “Help Me, and Laws, which they call “Make Me.”

But we need to strategically integrate all three approaches to overcome the big, tough social problems we face today. And social marketing is a powerful discipline that can be even more powerful when we use every tool in our tool kit and every strategy at our disposal.

The third change I want to address is how the first two are providing exciting new opportunities to carve out meaningful careers in social impact.

There has never been a better and brighter time for students and young and middle careerists who want to make a difference in the world.

You no longer have to choose between earning a decent living and making a social difference. As companies more toward doing well by doing good, huge opportunities have opened up in corporate America and around the globe.

And you can make a difference throughout a company, in marketing, sales, R & D, finance, supply chain management, you name it. You don’t have to be in a small Corporate Social Responsibility or Environment/Social/Governance group, because these concepts are permeating the entire organization.

Social responsibility ranks high among young people today in choosing a place to work and in employee engagement. Companies know this, and so do universities.

One student here at Georgetown – in studying the triple bottom line, said: “Especially with issues like the climate, there’s a huge business opportunity there, and there’s going to be a huge market for solving it. Earlier, we were relegated to charity or do-gooder-ism, but now we know it can make you money.”

Yes, there’s money in this: financial results as well as social value.

One of the most popular readings In the Ethical Leadership course I teach in the MBA program is “How Will You Measure Your Life,” by Clayton Christiansen. He says that purpose is vitally important, and his own yardstick for measuring his life is how much he has contributed to others. Today we all have this career opportunity.

So companies are changing and finding the sweet spot of financial and social value, social marketing offers a powerful set of tools to create sustainable change, and career opportunities to do well by doing good are better than ever.

Let’s take advantage of all this to make a real dent in the universe.

Bill Novelli is the Founder of Business for Impact at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He is a professor at McDonough and also co-chairs the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC), a national alliance to reform advanced illness/end of life care. Previously, he was CEO of AARP, founder of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, EVP of CARE and president, Porter Novelli, the global PR agency. Visit:


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