Philip Kotler Image

A famous economist known as the “Father of Modern Marketing,” Dr. Philip Kotler may be the single most influential marketing guru in the world today—with a celebrity status and a cult-like following. You may know that Dr. Kotler published the seminal article in 1971 coining the term “social marketing” in its original use. But did you know that in honor of his 75th birthday his image appeared on an Indonesian postage stamp?

ISMA’s Heather Bowen Ray recently interviewed Dr. Kotler to gain insights about his most recent work using marketing to influence positive change.

HBR: You have suggested that the World Marketing Summit (WMS) covers similar themes about improving the world that ISMA covers. Tell us about WMS.

PK: Working with others, we founded the World Marketing Summit (WMS) in 2011. On March 1-3, 2012, we launched the world’s first World Marketing Summit in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with 60 speakers and an audience of 4,000. The common thread covering all the speakers—corporate, academic, and government—was their expertise in applying marketing thinking to social problems. Our sponsor was the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and we had three Bangladesh Ministers participating covering Energy, Tourism, and Education.

You can appreciate the overlap between WMS and ISMA in their purposes to apply social marketing to Create a Better World. We will run future annual WMS programs in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, India, and China, always in March. We hope to work closely with ISMA for ideas on speakers and themes and sponsors.

HBR: Not much is written about your childhood and early life. I did read that you learned about marketing firsthand from your parents, Russian and Ukrainian immigrants who owned a store on Chicago’s North Side and see that you are a child of the depression era. Is there a personal influence or anecdote from your own life that you can share regarding the attention you’ve given to solving social problems?

PK: I did grow up in the Great Depression and I was an early reader. I remember reading about millionaires and wondered how so many people could be poor while others had such great wealth. This fanned my interest in how the distribution of income is determined and led me into economics as my calling. Is all great wealth earned or is much of it inherited or the result of political or artificial privileges and advantage? I was upset in meeting young people of talent who could never raise enough money to go to college. I was upset by photos of sharecroppers, homeless people, and starving people. Somehow these experiences led me to think about how I could make a difference in these social problems. Helping develop the field of Social Marketing was my effort to make a contribution in this area of problems.

HBR: Apart from your own vast body of work, what do you think is important for social marketers to follow?

PK: There are thousands of social marketers working on hundreds of causes, mostly local causes. I would distinguish between true social marketers who view social marketing comprehensively to include the 4Ps (which is the correct approach) versus many who only develop communications in an effort to influence change, which is mainly an attitude change approach. Comprehensive social marketers focus on behavior change and this requires a 4P approach [Product, Price, Place, Promotion] along with Segmentation, Targeting, and Positioning. Social marketers have mainly influenced three areas: family planning, public health and safety, and ecology. Public health officials are increasingly accepting the tools and philosophy of social marketing. My wish is that ISMA can help raise the consciousness of social marketing in the public’s mind. It might take a publicity campaign to do this and getting more public officials to describe their efforts as “social marketing” efforts.

HBR: What do you see as the best way for ISMA to help with the effort to raise people “Up and Out of Poverty,” as you wrote about in your book?

PK: Nancy Lee, my co-author of “Up and Out of Poverty” as well as the 4th edition of “Social Marketing,” has worked in several countries with public officials on poverty problems. I have also talked to government officials about possible social marketing programs. As others such as Alan Andreasen, Bill Novelli, and Craig Lefebvre do work abroad and recommend social marketing solutions, the understanding and respect for social marketing will continue to grow. The ISMA needs to develop a certification test for social marketers to help those agencies and others who want evidence of the skill level of a social marketer.

HBR: I saw that the Kellogg School of Management held a session on “Where’s marketing headed?”, and you also gave a presentation on new trends in marketing in Clearwater Beach this summer. But could you convey to ISMA members your vision for where the field of SOCIAL marketing is headed? How will we need to adapt in the coming months and years?

PK: In my address at the February Toronto meeting, I plan to talk about the interrelations between social marketing, social entrepreneurship, social innovation and other expressions of social activism. These other expressions are complementary, not competitive with social marketing. We need to join forces with others who want to create a better world and join our methodologies with their methodologies.

HBR: From your viewpoint, are there any unmet needs in the field of social marketing today? Where are the biggest opportunities? What kinds of research, training, or communications need to be done?

PK: We need to do much more work on “upstream social marketing.” For example, the problem of “obesity” is not going to be solved by only working with downstream social marketing to influence people to eat more nutritiously. As long as we are surrounded by unceasing ads from Coke and Pepsi and all the McDonald’s restaurants offering triple hamburger sandwiches, people will go for the convenience that these drinks and foods offer. Social marketers will have to start working with the food producers and retailers to improve the food quality and with educators at schools and colleges to emphasize healthy nutrition consciousness.

HBR: At what point, if any, might the field of social marketing need to rebrand itself? The issue of terminology is persistent… As “social media marketing” is often written in shorthand as “social marketing” by new media folks, it increasingly becomes understood by the general public as “social marketing”. Could rebranding help the field stand out?

PK: When Jerry Zaltman and I published our social marketing article, we could never anticipate that years later social marketing would pick up a different meaning, namely as a description of social media. I really think that it is time to rename the movement. One alternative is to rename “social marketing” as “social cause marketing (or SCM).” Another alternative is to rename it “cause marketing.” I third alternative is to rename it “cause-related marketing” (CRM) although the initials might be confused with Customer Relationship Marketing. I hope this issue is taken up at the Toronto Conference.

HBR: With such wide-ranging success and so many accolades, how do you want to be remembered?

PK: I guess that I have already received the recognition for my efforts to help create a better world. I received a phone call from Professor William Wilkie a month ago announcing that I was selected as the first recipient of the American Marketing Association Foundation’s “Marketing for a Better World” Award. I can’t think of a better way to be remembered.


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For more information about Dr. Kotler’s work, influence, and accomplishments, see

Learn more about the 2013 World Marketing Summit here.


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