Competition and Social Marketing

No serious commercial marketer would consider developing a marketing plan without answering the question:

What’s my competition doing?

  • Are they introducing new products?
  • Are they waging a price war?
  • Are they expanding distribution centers?
  • Are they appealing to a new audience?

Similarly, in social marketing, understanding your competition is fundamental to your most central strategic decisions.

Competition is defined in the commercial literature as the “actual and potential rival offerings and substitutes.”

Coke competes with Pepsi, Honda with Toyota, life insurance with stock investments, and so on. How you define your competition affects your marketing perspective.

In social marketing, competition matters because your programs exist in a free choice society. Your consumers – your target audiences – always have the power to choose something else, so you have to compete to be their preferred choice. You do that by acknowledging that consumers act on the basis of self-interest and offering them benefits that appeal to self-interest.

Considering competition in the market research phase

As a planner, you need to understand your competition. What does your audience see as the alternative to exercising regularly? To eating five servings of fruits and vegetables daily? To breastfeeding?

Then you need to understand what your audience sees as the respective costs/barriers and benefits of your target behavior, and costs and benefits of the competing choice.

Costs and benefits can be characterized in several ways:

  • delayed versus immediate
  • perceived versus real
  • physical or material versus attitudinal
  • unique to individuals versus universal

Use your market research to learn about your audience’s pertinent perceptions and experiences.

Considering competition in the strategy development phase

There are two social marketing decision points where the notion of competition is important.

  • selection of audience segments and behaviors to address
  • benefits offered in exchange for behavior change

The criteria for these decisions are discussed at length in Steps 3.1 and 3.2, but one critical question is where (or with whom) can you compete effectively?

For which audience segment and behavior can you deliver the most attractive offering considering the range of competitive alternatives they have available? This is often a function of several factors:

  • access to and credibility with the audience
  • their readiness to change a behavior,
  • the complexity of the desired behavior,
  • your own program resources,
  • the relative appeal of the behavioral competition -- current behaviors that you would like them to change.

You learned about benefits and barriers of current and desired behaviors in your market research. Now use your understanding of audience perceptions and experience to develop a strategy that effectively alters those benefits and barriers so that your target behavior is more attractive.

Your will do this by:

  • Adding value to the desired behavior (increasing the benefits the audience receives)
  • Making the competing behavior less valuable (decreasing the benefits of the current behavior)
  • Making the desired behavior less costly (e.g., easier to do)
  • Make the competing behavior more costly or more difficult
  • Some combination of these four strategies

Remember that behavioral alternatives compete in your audience’s minds. You have to offer something that competes effectively.