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Upstream and Downstream Social Marketing Essay

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Updated: May 10th, 2021


Upstream social marketing is a concept that has gained traction in academic circles. Its chief implication is the focus on the causes of social issues rather than their outcomes. Despite its high-concept nature, the approach has been successfully implemented and has produced favorable results. The following paper explores the difference between upstream and downstream marketing and provides justification of their importance in a real-life setting.

Operational Definitions

In order to identify the differences between upstream and downstream marketing, it is first necessary to provide definitions of both concepts. To provide the necessary context, it is vital to introduce a brief history of its formulation. The earliest mention of upstream marketing is found in an article by John McKinlay as an analogy for illustrating differences in social marketing approaches (Zimmerman 2017). The author compared a strategy exhibited by social marketing agencies in a scenario where someone is struggling to rescue people drowning in a dangerous stream. According to the initial definition, the main issue with this approach is the inability to address the cause of the problem (e.g. find out the reason for the incident) due to preoccupation with mitigation of its effects.

Since then, the concept of an upstream approach to social marketing has been loosely defined as a strategy emphasizing the causal agents of social issues and targeting relevant determinants with the formulation of policies and allocation of resources (McKie & Toledano 2008). Downstream social marketing, on the other hand, is defined as an approach that targets specific behaviors and issues through tactical interventions and focused programs (Truong 2014). It is implied that upstream marketing focuses on long-term perspectives whereas its downstream counterpart targets short-term objectives. As can be seen, the definitions describe the phenomena in broad strokes, which makes it difficult to identify specific differences. For instance, the criteria for strategic and tactical perspectives are expected to change depending on the scope of interventions in question. Nevertheless, it is possible to grasp the core ideas of both terms and identify their main differences.

Differences between Approaches

As can be seen from the definition, the main difference between the approaches in question is the focus on either causal factors or consequences. While it is possible to point to other differences, such as strategic versus tactical perspective and the use of preventive rather than mitigation strategies, all of them can be traced to the core distinction identified above. Therefore, it would be reasonable to explore the viability of causal agency as a primary focus of marketing in order to determine its relevance in the social setting.

The contemporary social marketing field contains many examples that can be used as illustrations of differences between upstream and downstream marketing. The obesity problem is one such example. Currently, the condition exists in the adult population regardless of age, education, socioeconomic status, or other demographic factors (Wymer 2010). Multiple solutions have been developed and implemented in an attempt to resolve the issue. For instance, healthcare providers and government organizations have launched numerous information and education campaigns expected to improve the understanding of the issue. In addition, many private enterprises have invested in the development of a wide range of interventions in order to provide the public with the means for weight reduction. However, despite massive time and resource allocation, the problem persists. According to recent estimates, the number of obese individuals has increased by 300% (Wymer 2010). While the consensus currently holds that significant progress has been made in the field, it is apparent that the said progress has not yet manifested on a practically meaningful scale.

The most promising area of research on the matter deals with the forces responsible for the persistent nature of the condition. The most widely agreed upon ones are decreased physical activity, unhealthy lifestyle, and increasing amount of stress as a result of an increasingly dynamic social environment (Gertner et al. 2016). Many of the current responses by governments and healthcare providers develop their interventions based on these aspects. These efforts can be considered an example of upstream marketing since the interventions supposedly target the cause of the issue.

Nevertheless, the approach is obviously lacking inefficiency, as can be seen from the persistent nature of the problem. This discrepancy has prompted the scientific community to re-evaluate the situation in an attempt to identify which factors have not been accounted for in the current campaigns. According to Gertner et al. (2016), marketing and pricing practices rolled out by major players in the industry that are expected to promote healthier lifestyle choices and thus address the magnitude of the problem are ineffective precisely because they do not account for the marketing of unhealthy food choices. Specifically, the wide availability and low cost of high-fat, high-calorie foods influence choices made by the consumers and increase the volume of consumed food (Kubacki et al. 2015). In addition, numerous marketing strategies such as psychological pricing, value pricing, deals, and quantity discounts disrupt the effects of existing countermeasures.

Admittedly, no evidence currently exists that would confirm these implications. Nevertheless, the researchers argue that increased awareness of the deceptive marketing strategies used by the major industry players will provide necessary development. Another viable area of improvement is a fundamental change in approach to creating customer value, which requires a comprehensive effort on local, state, and federal levels. Considering the possibility that these implications are at least partially funded, it becomes evident that the current approach of policymakers and the media cannot be considered upstream in the strict sense until all of the identified areas are properly addressed. It is also apparent that unless a change is made in the suggested direction, it is unlikely that sufficient progress will be made in the field of social marketing.

Another example that illustrates the difference between upstream and downstream marketing is the ongoing effort of addressing the adverse effects of smoking. The majority of interventions designed to address the issue usually target the outcomes of the developed habit (e.g. smoking cessation clinics) or attempt to address the lack of information leading to poor lifestyle choices (e.g. information campaigns) (Hastings et al. 2000). At this point, it should be noted that the lack of precise definition makes it possible to view the latter as addressing the core issue. Nevertheless, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the information campaigns target the results of a social environment’s influence on individuals. Since these influences are numerous and complex, addressing them is a highly challenging task.

While the described direction of social marketing is in its early stage of development, several examples of successful upstream marketing have already been reported. For instance, a novel strategy described by Waters et al. (2010) has been shown to be extremely effective and cost-efficient in terms of social marketing performance. According to the researchers, success can be attributed to the two-pronged nature of the strategy, which focused on the emotional implications of the habit for smokers’ families while simultaneously creating a non-judgmental image of the organizations providing support for the impacted population (Waters et al. 2017). This program yielded a 57% increase in the number of successful quitters, a 54% increase in payback, and a major cost-per-quit reduction. Both aspects target social components of the issue on the local scale, which can be interpreted as consistent with an upstream marketing approach.

In summary, the main difference between upstream and downstream marketing is the focus on core causes of the issues or on their outcomes, respectively. However, it should be noted that the boundary between the two can be vague, leading to difficulties in the attribution of outcomes to a specific approach. This lack of specificity suggests that the concepts in question should be perceived as an illustration of the recommended approach to social marketing rather than a set of instructions that can be implemented with a reasonable degree of certainty.

Importance of Upstream Marketing

Considering the information from the previous section, it is tempting to conclude that an upstream concept is a definitive approach to social marketing. First, it is evident that from a theoretical perspective upstream marketing makes perfect sense – it allows the eradication of issues by targeting their principal causes (Gordon 2013). From a logical standpoint, such an approach is far more viable and sustainable in the long term. However, two points must be considered before a definitive conclusion is made. First, as was briefly discussed above, the distinction between causal factors and effects is often vague and, as a result, prone to subjective interpretation. Thus, it is possible to assume that at least some of the reported positive results of the marketing strategies are misattributed due to bias. Simply put, it is relatively easy to frame the success of a marketing campaign as attributable to its upstream nature by indicating its points of intersection with the impacted population’s immediate environment as well as their broader social context (Stead et al. 2009). In other words, it would be unreasonable to put trust in the superiority of upstream marketing based on the existing evidence. Until a more reliable implementation and evaluation framework are developed, such conclusions should be treated with caution.

Second, and, perhaps, more importantly, we need to understand the expected outcomes of both approaches. In most cases, a composite solution that includes both upstream and downstream elements may be desirable. In fact, at least in some cases, such composition is necessary for achieving a positive effect. For instance, the smoking reduction strategy described above was intended to facilitate trust between sufferers and healthcare organizations as one of its primary goals. Thus, it required the existence of downstream interventions in order to succeed. In fact, its success may in part be attributed to the fact that it was implemented in the environment with a well-developed infrastructure that included existing downstream elements. Therefore, it can be argued that while upstream marketing is necessary for achieving a breakthrough in struggling with social issues, it cannot be considered a standalone solution.


Upstream social marketing is a promising concept in the field of social services. Its chief advantage over traditional approaches is the focus on causal agents of social issues rather than their outcomes. Such an approach demonstrates significant potential in terms of efficiency and sustainability of results. However, it can be argued that the effects attributed to upstream strategies are possible only in combination with downstream elements. Therefore, while its importance is hardly questionable, it cannot be considered the most needed solution.

Reference List

Gertner, D, Gertner, AK, Araujo, DV, Bahia, L & Bouzas, I 2016, ‘Calories and cents: customer value and the fight against obesity, Social Marketing Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 325-339.

Gordon, R 2013, ‘Unlocking the potential of upstream social marketing’, European Journal of Marketing, vol. 47, no. 9, pp. 1525-1547.

Hastings, G, MacFadyen, L & Anderson, S 2000, ‘Whose behavior is it anyway? The broader potential of social marketing’, Social Marketing Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 46-58.

Kubacki, K, Rundle-Thiele, S, Lahtinen, V & Parkinson, J 2015, ‘A systematic review assessing the extent of social marketing principle use in interventions targeting children (2000-2014)’, Young Consumers, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 141-158.

McKie, D & Toledano, M 2008, ‘Dangerous liaison or perfect match? Public relations and social marketing’, Public Relations Review, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 318-324.

Stead, M, Gordon, R, Holme, I, Moodie, C, Hastings, G & Angus, K 2009, , Web.

Truong, VD 2014, ‘Social marketing: a systematic review of research 1998–2012’, Social Marketing Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 15-34.

Waters, K, Nairn, A & Kemp, P 2010, , Web.

Wymer, W 2010, ‘Rethinking the boundaries of social marketing: activism or advertising?’, Journal of Business Research, vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 99-103.

Zimmerman, FJ 2017, ‘Public health autonomy: a critical reappraisal’, Hastings Center Report, vol. 47, no. 6, pp. 38-45.

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