Written by Okechukwu Umelo

There are problems, and then there are wicked problems – and then there are super wicked problemsMany researchers and academics will say that climate change falls in the latter category.

My interest in climate change was reinvigorated while browsing through the programme for the upcoming World Social Marketing Conference on 16-17 May. Climate change is a key conference theme, with various paper presentations and a panel session devoted to the issue. Leading up to the conference, it’s worthwhile to explore the role social marketing plays in addressing the super wicked problem that is climate change.

The super wicked problem

I became refamiliarized with the phrase while listening to a great Re-Quilibrium podcast on social marketing and climate change. In the podcast, researcher David Meiklejohn first defines a wicked problem as a difficult problem with no easy solution – a problem that is harder to define and harder to end cleanly than a ‘tame’ problem (read more). Smoking is one example.

Meiklejohn then explains that the emergence of climate change as an issue created four additional complexity factors that went beyond those defined for wicked problems. As a result, academics began defining climate change as a super wicked problem with the following additional complexity factors:

  1. There is a limited time to respond. Example: With weather hazards growing in frequency and intensity, and increased community vulnerability linked to climate change, we need to act now before the issue becomes too overwhelming to tackle.
  2. They are caused by those seeking the solution. Example: Many of us fail to take practical actions to address climate change, though we may believe that it is a problem.
  3. There is weak or non-existent central authority. Example: Government action is affected by declining public trust and fluctuating levels of support for climate action and policies.
  4. We discount future benefits gained from taking action. Example:We value the current benefits of fossil fuels over the long-term benefits of renewable energy sources.


Is social marketing a super wicked solution?

Meiklejohn explains that from a policy perspective, climate change solutions tend towards large policy changes that can impact whole populations. But when it comes to social marketing “that’s more difficult, because we tend to work downstream – we don’t tend to work at a high policy level…we tend to work much more directly with the populations that we have contact with.”

Thinking about the four complexity factors is therefore a very useful way to develop better social marketing interventions targeting climate change. Meiklejohn recommends that such programmes should not focus on what people think about the issue, but rather what they do, or actions that they can take or are already taking.

“People say one thing about climate change and one thing about sustainability but they do very different things at times, and ultimately we’re going to be judged on how effective we are – we’re not going to be judged on whether people remember the brand of a programme, whether they remember the message of a programme – it’s got to be about what did they do.”

Meiklejohn supports using segmentation to look at specific group behaviours and lifestyles in the target population that can impact on climate change, as opposed to a broad approach that tries to get everybody to act in the same way. “The things that we do are very different across the population, and they all contribute to climate change, but we may not recognize them as doing so,” he says.

A key challenge social marketers face may be that many people are indifferent or even actively hostile towards the climate change discourse, and they may therefore not identify with the brand being communicated in a given programme. So, how do you win these people over? Meiklejohn stresses that programmes need to go beyond branding campaigns or a one-size-fits-all approach, to framing the issue in other ways:

“You might have some people that are actively hostile to the idea of climate change but are not actively hostile to the idea of reducing their energy costs, and therefore solar might make a lot of sense to them from a purely financial point of view. Once you get them to put up solar, you might have an in to be able to talk to them about other things.”

One interesting example from Meiklejohn’s podcast is an approach in the United Kingdom addressing the fourth complexity factor: discounting the future benefits of taking action on climate change. The Behavioural Insights Team examined approaches to encourage consumers to purchase more energy efficient dishwashers and washing machines. These products are better for the environment but are more expensive than less energy efficient models. However, the lifetime running costs of the efficient models tend to be lower. To get around the initial sticker price differentiation, BIT worked with department stores to include lifetime prices on these goods, encouraging customers to purchase the more energy efficient models (read more, page 147).

As Meiklejohn’s podcast proves, social marketing can be a very useful approach for addressing climate change, though pundits continue to debate its usefulness given its limited scale and scope. Nevertheless, it remains a tried and tested approach for fostering the real behaviour change that is so sorely needed for sustainable development.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on social marketing’s role in addressing climate change. Is it a super wicked solution to a super wicked problem? Are there some good examples out there? I’m also looking forward to seeing what climate topics and strategies emerge from the upcoming World Social Marketing Conference – until then!


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