Social marketing has long been used in the field of public health, but its application in the environmental world is only a decade old. McKenzie-Mohr and Smith’s (1999) guide to fostering sustainable behavior through “community-based social marketing” (CBSM) has gained widespread support. However, there have been few attempts to delineate when and where CBSM can (and should) be used. Nor has CBSM been fully connected to the literature on long-term neighborhood sustainability. Is social marketing useful for promoting sustainability in neighborhoods?
To answer this question, Deborah Lightman (MCP ’11) reviewed the relevant literature and interviewed homeowners in three neighborhoods in the Toronto area regarding their priorities for sustainability and their interest in rain barrels and gardens. Deborah’s research suggests that community-based social marketing can be useful for promoting sustainability in neighborhoods; however, practitioners must use it conscientiously.
First, social marketers should go beyond investigating “barriers” to carefully assess why residents of a given neighborhood would want to adopt a specific sustainable action. Results of interviews suggest that different messages about rain barrel benefits will resonate with individuals who self-identify in different ways. Findings also suggest that CBSM programs will be more successful if they are clearly beneficial for the local environment or community. Second, social marketers should explore whether residents consider their neighborhood to be their “community”. Many neighborhoods are not defined by a single set of community norms, which may affect the way social marketers use normative tools to promote behaviors.
Social marketers should also carefully consider the relationship between the uptake of a specific action and broader neighborhood sustainability. CBSM does not aim for change beyond the individual level, despite its claim to be “community-based.” However, in all three neighborhoods, addressing residents’ sustainability priorities required neighborhood-level action. Deborah suggests that CBSM can indirectly contribute to long-term sustainability by building social capital, attachment to place, and understanding of the concept of sustainability. She argues that a CBSM program that leads to the adoption of 30 rain barrels and stimulates neighborhood-wide engagement may be more valuable than one that leads to the passive uptake of 100 rain barrels.
You can learn more about this topic by reading the full thesis, “Community-Based Social Marketing at the Neighborhood Scale: Sustainable Behavior or Neighborhood Sustainability?”  written by Deborah Lightman.