Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Qualitative Research for Social Marketing: One Organization's Journey to Improved Consumer Insight

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Qualitative Research for Social Marketing: One Organization's Journey to Improved Consumer Insight

Article excerpt

Kotler and Zaltman (1971) coined the term "social marketing," and it is typically defined as the use of marketing principles to influence individual behavior in ways that benefit both the individual and society (Lee & Kotler, 2011). Social marketers use these principles to influence communities, organizations, politicians, media figures, and others for positive social change (Andreasen, 2006). As a result, there can be many kinds of "consumers" of social products, services, and behaviors, including implementing partners, policy makers and donors (Sutton, Balch, & Lefebvre, 1995). The distinction between social marketing and commercial marketing is that selling products and services is not the goal; rather it is a means to positive behavior change that accrues in health or other social benefits (Lefebvre & Flora, 1988).

Consumer orientation is the basis of social marketing (Novelli, 1984). Only by understanding and empathizing with the consumer can marketers develop strategies for solving a problem or satisfying a need or want (Lee & Kotler, 2011). Consumer insights, or actionable findings about the target audience, inform decisions about the 4Ps of marketing: product, price, place, and promotion. Such insight also contributes to audience segmentation, branding, and the development of concepts behind campaigns that are engaging, relevant to the consumer, and effective (Maibach, Rothschild, & Novelli, 2002).

Qualitative research is valuable to social marketers because it provides insight into the consumer's mind (Hastings, Angus, & Bryant, 2011). Qualitative research has the ability to generate "rich data" about intangible factors that provide a context for health behavior such as consumers' values, feelings, thoughts, intentions, barriers, motivators, culture, and social norms (Aaker, Kumar, & Day, 2007).

In this paper, we capture Population Services International's (PSI) global qualitative research program from 2003 to 2013 and highlight what we learned along our journey, particularly about the importance of insight into the emotional barriers and motivators driving consumer behavior. We illustrate how an interpretive process and more appropriate data collection methods allow marketers to shape new brands and campaigns that resonate with consumers and to reposition concepts to connect with new consumers. We describe how the journey for more and better consumer insight continues, and we explore the potential for expanding qualitative approaches into other areas of our research portfolio.


The Problem

PSI is a global health organization that has implemented social marketing programs for more than 40 years. Its mission is to make it easier for people in the developing world to lead healthier lives and plan the families they desire by marketing affordable products and services. PSI works in more than 60 countries and its programs have traditionally focused on five health areas: HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, malaria, child survival, and tuberculosis.

PSI started commissioning qualitative studies in 1973 to understand consumer behavior and inform program design. The first study, conducted in Sri Lanka, aimed to help marketers create Preethi-branded condoms and promote them for family planning (Davies & Louis, 1977). By the early 1990s, qualitative studies were common across PSI's programs and largely used to pretest product and message concepts.

For an organization like PSI, research should connect directly to program needs and evidence is at the heart of decision-making. During this period, however, the exploratory value and utility of qualitative data was limited. There was little discussion between researchers and marketers to identify appropriate areas of inquiry or refine research questions. Studies were rarely based on interpretive or ethnographic research and they did not link to other data sources, like population-based surveys (Bell & Aggleton, 2012; Rauscher & Graue, 2010). …

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