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Marketing Social Change

Marketing Social Change

William D. Novelli, AARP CEO
21st Annual Summer Series on Aging
University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY

June 14, 2004

Good morning. And thank you Nelda, for that kind introduction. As you know, Nelda is a member of AARP’s national Board of Directors, a volunteer, non-paid position. Most of you are familiar with Nelda’s work here in Kentucky on behalf of older Americans, and I can tell you that as a member of our Board, she is a tireless advocate for older Americans throughout the country. Let’s give her a hand.

Today we are talking about marketing social change. Someone once said that a little change can hurt a lot; and a lot of change doesn’t hurt that much more. Of course, it depends on what kind of change is taking place.

I’m pleased to be here this morning to talk about marketing social change and how to make it happen. And, I want to leave ample time so we can have a dialogue and discuss how all of this relates to our work and to aging in America.

You are the right people for a discussion of social change, because you’re on the front lines. You are changing people’s lives, and in the process, changing society. We believe at AARP that we have the power to make it better. And that’s what you do, too. Whether you’re a nurse, a social worker, an educator, a pharmacist, therapist, or direct a senior center, you are improving the quality of people’s lives as they get older. That’s what we all try to do. And if you’re a student, you are the social change agent of tomorrow.

The notion that marketing can be applied to ideas, issues and causes—has been around a long time. Back in the 50’s, someone asked, why can’t we sell brotherhood like soap? Well, I’ve sold soap, and I’ve marketed social causes and issues. I’ve concluded that there are similarities…but also substantial differences.

Have you ever heard the old saying that if you build a better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your door? Well, most of the time, that’s not marketing. We don’t want to start with the mouse trap, but rather with the consumer…the people who have mice in their homes. Do they want to get rid of them? How satisfied or dissatisfied are they with current mouse removal systems? How much would they pay to remove mice? With the answers to these kinds of questions, a marketing person can then go to the R & D people and design a product for the market. This focus on the consumer is the essence of good marketing.

Some of the roots of social marketing go back to family planning applications in the 1960s. Initially, the practice of social marketing was closely identified with marketing of products involved in social change (e.g., contraceptives, oral rehydration salts to control infant diarrhea). But it has evolved into a broader concept of the marketing of behaviors. I have worked in reproductive health and infant survival programs in the developing world, and the behaviors—and non-behaviors—have got to lead to the products, and not the other way around.

I had a colleague, Rachel Greenberg, who was returning to the U.S. from working on a family planning project in Egypt. The customs agent at Kennedy Airport asked her whether she had been abroad on business or pleasure, and she said, "both." He asked her what was in her travel case, and Rachel said, "condoms, oral contraceptives, foaming tablets and IUDs." The agent looked at her passport and said, "Ms. Greenberg, does your mother know what you’re doing?"

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