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Enabling behaviour change - Social Practice Theory perspective on social marketing strategy
Umeå University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Umeå School of Business and Economics (USBE), Business Administration.ORCID iD: 0000-0003-2717-4433
2016 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]


As we are crossing new planetary boundaries (Steffen et al., 2015), changing human behavior is becoming the central focus of sustainable development work. However, social marketers have not yet reached the potential required for shaping pro-environmental lifestyles (McKenzie-Mohr & Schultz, 2014), which are embedded in complex systems where both individual factors and surrounding environment play a defining role in their adoption.

We all live in communities be that our neighbourhood or entire town, and community is a great example of a system where constant interactions between individuals and their environment shape daily practices. This paper aims to develop a conceptual framework based on Social Practice Theory (Shove et al, 2012) and test its applicability for understanding and aiding behavior change campaigns for entire communities. Consequently, the paper’s objective is to contribute to the debate between the advocates for upstream and downstream social marketing interventions.


This paper has flexible design, and builds on literature review and in-depth case study.

First, to construct a “tight and evolving” framework (Dubois & Gadde, 2002), a set of multidisciplinary literature is reviewed. Based on peer-reviewed articles in social marketing and psychology, the review has four key themes: the current debate about upstream and downstream social marketing (e.g. Cherrier & Gurrieri, 2014); promotion of pro-environmental behaviours (van Vugt et al., 2014) including role of norms (Rettie et al., 2012) and values (Schwartz, 1992); community-based social marketing (McKenzie-Mohr, 2000); and Social Practice Theory (SPT) (e.g. Shove et al., 2012).

The review is followed by in-depth study of a campaign that promotes sorting of organic waste for biogas production in Malmö (Sweden). The campaign has been running for more than 4 years and successfully reached its ambitious goals. Primary unit of analysis is practice of sorting organic waste, and perspectives from both social marketers and residents, as well as observations of the environment, are taken into consideration. Data is collected using semi-structured personal and phone interviews with 4 key individuals behind the campaign and 14 residents of Malmö of various age, gender and accommodation type. All interviews are recorded and validated. Newspapers and campaign material are used to support the primary data. All relevant technologies proposed by Riege (2003) are applied to establish trustworthiness of this study.

Finally, narrative analysis is applied, which is aided by various techniques, such as matching and organizing data in tables and graphs, to facilitate coding and categorization.


SPT suggests that behavior may be understood better through routinized activities, i.e. practices, which consist of interconnected elements, such as materials, competences and meanings (Shove et al., 2012). This paper puts forward a conceptual framework that incorporates multidisciplinary ideas, as well as different concepts and tools suggested by social marketing research into the model, and shows how they can function together and affect various elements of practice. The framework proves useful in analyzing the campaign in Malmö. The campaign stretched over several years and targeted the entire city, touching upon all elements of practice: materials, e.g. providing infrastructure and convenient holders, nudging; competences, e.g. extensive information campaigns on “how” and “why” of sorting; and meanings, e.g. renewable fuel for city busses, easiness, norms.

Both practices and practitioners have careers (Shove et al., 2012). The narratives of residents show how their engagement in recycling developed over time, and how their attention shifted from one element of practice to another. This knowledge can assist social marketers in choosing tools that are particularly relevant for a certain stage of practice adoption: (1) providing infrastructure and convenience (materials) for an easy start, (2) apply effective communication and educate (competences) for increased engagement­ and (3) create strong images (meanings) for maintenance of behavior and its uptake by latecomers.

Finally, behavior change campaigns in communities cannot be perfectly engineered due to a diversity of contextual factors that also affect the process. The adoption of organic waste sorting in Malmö was affected by residents’ families, neighborhoods, work places, coincidences and other practices. Besides, target audience took an active role in the behavior change process in their community, and thus they can be potentially “employed” as ambassadors in such campaigns.


By analysing behaviour in terms of social practices and developing a toolbox based on SPT, this paper contributes to the appearing research that strives to develop community-based social marketing approach. Working with behaviour interventions in big and diverse communities is not an easy task. Compared to controlled experiments and short-term campaigns, it requires incessant application of a wide array of tools. Furthermore, behaviour change is a continuous process with different transition stages. Upstream and downstream social marketing approaches can then effectively complement each other, thus the border between them can be reconsidered. Practitioners need to understand behaviours as everyday practices, to apply extensive and transparent research before acting and to engage constantly in open dialogue with the community.

Appreciation of the community complexity and of a great variety of intervention approaches can enrich social marketing work and produce campaigns that enable behaviour change to ensure a more sustainable future.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
National Category
Business Administration
Research subject
consumer behavior; sustainable development
URN: urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-120787OAI: diva2:929994
4th Nordic Conference on Consumer Research
Available from: 2016-05-20 Created: 2016-05-20 Last updated: 2016-05-20

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