12 August 2019

Social marketing for safe water

Social marketing
Author/Compiled by
Andrea van der Kerk (IRC)
Urs Heierli (Antenna Foundation)
Fanny Boulloud (Antenna Foundation)
Raphael Graser (Antenna Foundation)
Reviewed by
Jeske Verhoeven (IRC)
Gabrial Erismann (Antenna Foundation)
Edema Ojomo (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Executive Summary

Social Marketing

Social marketing is the use of marketing principles and techniques to advance a social cause, idea or behaviour. In contrary to commercial marketing does social marketing not advertise a specific product or service but a new behaviour. Especially for safe water entrepreneurs, social marketing is key, as potential customers are by majority not aware of health risks linked with contaminated water and the willingness to pay for safe water services is not yet in place. Therefore a holistic approach is required to convince people that safe water is crucial for the health of their families and behaviour has to be changed.

This factsheet provides insights and methodologies of how to design and implement social marketing activities for safe water. The case study of Tinkisso in Guinea reveals how social marketing activities have been key to its successful business model and how it has been implemented.

What is social marketing?

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Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman first introduced the term ‘social marketing’ in 1971 to describe "the use of marketing principles and techniques to advance a social cause, idea or behaviour" (HEIERLI, 2008). Changing behaviour means influencing a person and this is often a social and psychological process. Such process is not an easy task, especially not in traditional rural societies. Just spreading rational information is not enough to be effective. KOTLER AND LEE (2011) explain the concept as: “Similar to commercial sector marketers whose objective is to sell goods and services, social marketers’ objectives is to successfully influence certain behaviours.” Accordingly one typically wants to influence target audiences to do one (or more) of the four things:

1. Accept a new behaviour;

2. Reject a potentially undesirable behaviour (e.g. starting smoking), which is why we refer more often to behaviour influence than behaviour change;

3. Modify a current behaviour (e.g. do hand washing); or

4. Abandon and old undesirable behaviour (e.g. stop drinking untreated water).

It is, however also very important to have an impact on continuous behaviour changes. In contrary to commercial marketing social marketing does not advertise a specific product or service but new behaviour.

Social marketing aspects can become part of the marketing strategy and address the behavioural aspect, for example by making the product or service socially desirable (people want a filter or home delivered water because the neighbour has got it or because the children have learned at school that safe water is important for them). Very often, the desired behaviour needs to be promoted positively and the undesired behaviour negatively. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of social marketing (also its greatest contribution) is that it relies heavily on ‘rewarding good behaviour’ rather than punishing ‘bad ones’ through legal, economic, or coercive forms of influence. Youngsters should perceive the desired behaviour as ‘cool’ or ‘modern’. But often a combination of carrots and sticks is needed: For example, tobacco is one of the main causes of death now recognized internationally. To stop smoking thorough public health campaigns are needed. Existing campaigns show that if promoted as a desirable value in combination with negative incentives (more and more zones where smoking is not allowed, a constant increase in price) and even more socially perceived as bad behaviour through education, a positive impact can be realized. Important to note is that the impact of social marketing campaigns is often difficult to measure and may only be felt after a (very) long time (several decades). For example hygiene education in schools may only have an impact on the next generations.

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Why is social marketing pertinent?

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The prevalence of waterborne diseases and scarcity of drinking water would suggest creating a high demand for potable water. And yet, most water businesses find in reality that they need to invest a lot to create demand for safe drinking water in their target market. Many potential safe water customers – especially in rural areas and especially at the base of the pyramid – are not aware that the water they drink is polluted, and therefore the cause of diseases. They may say: “my father and my grand-father were drinking this water” and “yes, we sometimes have diarrhoea, but is this not a part of daily life”? The problem is not only lack of awareness, but the acceptance of diarrhoea as a ‘normal’ phenomenon, and not as a life-threatening risk (AMMANN, 2012).

For an entrepreneur delivering safe water or household water treatment solutions (HWTS) products, a holistic social marketing campaign is needed to achieve a change in perception and finally in behaviour to create markets and enhance sales volumes. Social marketing has to be part of the core activities of a safe water business throughout the start-up, preparation and scaling up phase of a business.

For whom is this tool interesting/useful?

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This social marketing tool is interesting for NGOs, safe water enterprises, governments and international organizations to learn more about social marketing and best practices as:

  • Social marketing campaigns can be quite expensive, depending on the type of approach, internal or external and need to be executed by joining hands of different safe water actors in order to have a sustainable long-term impact.
  • Moreover, social marketing is more a ‘public’ than a ‘private’ task (health education) and there is also a risk of free-riding: if a company creates awareness for safe water, free riders may just jump in to exploit the newly created market.

How can social marketing be implemented?

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A first stage for safe water enterprises and actors active in the safe water sector have to antagonize and increase awareness among the population in order to create a market for your respective product.

For safe water it is important to combine (commercial) marketing and social marketing in a smart way. Hereby the classical marketing mix of the 4Ps should be used in a holistic manner. Combining the two means to market the desired behaviour change (e.g. drinking safe water or using a latrine) positively by applying the 4Ps:

1. Having an attractive (aspirational) Product,

2. Delivering this product or service at an affordable and attractive Price,

3. Setting up a viable and profitable supply chain (Place) and

4. Promotion of the product or service effectively (social and commercial marketing).

To promote sustained demand of HWTS it is essential to understand the preferences, choices, and aspirations of the target population. The user preferences are related to technological, social, or economic aspects (OJOMO, 2015), but often we must dig deeper and understand the perceptions people have about drinking water. The safe water entrepreneur/ promoter also needs to understand who can influence people to change their behaviour, rather than focusing on the messages alone. People may listen to village leaders, religious leaders, but even more so to peer pressure by their neighbours.

Marketing specialists distinguish between ‘Above the Line’ (ATL) and ‘Below the Line’ (BTL) promotion methods: ATL are the classical advertisement channels such as TV and other media advertisements. BTL-promotion is more a ‘people-to-people’ method of informing and influencing the target population (WHILMSHURST, 1993).

BTL methods seem to be more appropriate to target traditional customers. A study by Zoller (2016) in Northern India revealed that more than 80% (see graphs below) of customers bought Aqua+ (Taralife’s chlorine flask)  because they had heard about it from a trusted person. If social marketing is concerned and built-in into sales activities, people-to-people communication seems to be more effective, because many customers do not trust formal channels.

Aqua+ market study. Source: ZOLLER, 2016 (own illustration)
Aqua+ market study. Source: ZOLLER, 2016, own illustration


Aqua+ market study. Source: ZOLLER, 2016 (own illustration)
Aqua+ market study. Source: ZOLLER, 2016, own illustration


There are several social marketing techniques being used in the safe water sector, such as:

  • At national level: Mass media campaigns (e.g. TV commercials, radio commercials etc.). Lessons learned from Hydrologic: these campaigns are expensive and the impact is difficult to measure. It is also difficult to directly attribute increased sales to mass media campaigns, but people’s brand recognition does increase due to these activities (this can induce a want to purchase a product).



- If people perceive a HWTS product as a product for more affluent people, the crave to have it increases (compare TV, mobile phones etc.).

- National campaigns work also on radio, but keep in mind that there might be a very diverse language spectrum within a specific country of interest.


  • At regional/local level: Blitz marketing campaigns (e.g. Spring Health, using a tuk-tuk with loud speakers to disseminate the message of the importance of drinking safe water) and door-to-door campaigns (e.g. ECCA, Spring Health) to inform the entire village at it respective doorstep about safe water. In Nepal and Guinea road shows and village theatres have been proven to being successful means for reaching people in their daily lives.


Door-to-door campaign (Source: Graser (2014)
Door-to-door campaign. Source: Graser, 2014


Water testing melas in practice Nanavati (2016)
Water testing melas in practice. Source: Nanavati, 2016


  • At city/village level:

1. Involving Self-Help Groups (SHGs) or women groups. In a recent modification of the sales strategy of Spring Health, the water is distributed with the involvement of SHGs and this allows spreading of messages with a people-to-people approach. SHGs are an important sales channel not only for the product but also to create and enhance trust.

2. Sales presentations in villages. E.g. Hydrologic has a mobile sales teams have adopted a very effective strategy of building in their sales pitch influencing aspects: for example, they always invite the village leader when a presentation of the Super Tunsai filter is made, and he socially “endorses” the purchase of a filter. In India, Spring Health organizes “water testing melas” where villagers can bring their water for testing, and after 48 hours the petri-dishes with the bacteria cultivation on their own water are shown to them. This is effective, but it may take a long time to change the mind-sets and behaviour of traditional village people.

3. School programs and activities around WASH and particularly water: ECCA in Nepal has adopted this method using Antenna Foundation's Mini-WATA™ to produce chlorine through a group of students. Chlorine making and disinfecting of the school water tank and water testing was made part of the curriculum. The teachers and students do therefore perform the disinfection of the school water as a practical task. This practice is much more effective than just showing the children pictures of bacteria as they practically see what measures need to be taken to have an impact on health.

4. In Guinea Tinkisso-Antenna uses a combination of mass media in urban centres, focusing on awareness raising together with UNICEF and the NGO Population Services International (PSI) in combination with increasing brand recognition. In rural areas in collaboration with regionally rooted NGOs and local influencers (e.g. mosques and churches) door-to-door campaigns and village information gatherings are organized (see case study on social marketing - Tinkisso-Antenna).

See more information on how to develop a social marketing strategy and measure impact. 

Library References

Marketing Safe Water Systems: Why it is so hard to get safe water to the poor – and so profitable to sell it to the rich

This book provides unique insights – from the varied perspectives of users, disseminators, producers and retailers – into the marketing challenges of point-of-use water treatment devices.

HEIERLI, U. (2008): Marketing Safe Water Systems: Why it is so hard to get safe water to the poor – and so profitable to sell it to the rich. Bern: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) URL [Accessed: 18.05.2019]

Sustainability and Scale-up of Household Water Treatment and safe Storage Practices: Enablers and Barriers to effective Implementation

This paper provides insights from the ground on scaling up sales of household water treatment products (HWTS). The data collected is based on interviews carried out in over 25 countries. 47 enabling factors as well as barriers were identified to sustaining and scaling up HWTS. The findings were clustered as: user guidance on HWTS products; resource availability; standards, certification and regulations; integration and collaboration; user preferences; and market strategies.

OJOMO, E. et al. (2015): Sustainability and Scale-up of Household Water Treatment and safe Storage Practices: Enablers and Barriers to effective Implementation. In: International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health: Volume 218 , 704–713. URL [Accessed: 23.07.2018] PDF
Further Readings

Marketing safe water to the base of the pyramid – lessons for scaling up a social enterprise in Guinea

This paper discusses market based approaches to safe water in the context of the Guinean NGO Tinkisso-Antenna. Not only can profit-oriented businesses achieve long-term financial sustainability but also do they have the potential to grow in size. Challenges of scaling up and replicating social enterprises in the safe water sector are discussed and lessons learned provided why doing business at the bottom of the pyramid is no easy task.

BÜHLMANN, A. (2014): Marketing safe water to the base of the pyramid – lessons for scaling up a social enterprise in Guinea. (= Master's Thesis ). University of St. Gallen URL [Accessed: 16.04.2018] PDF

Access to Safe Water for the Base of the Pyramid – Lessons Learned from 15 Case Studies

The book provides insights on how innovative approaches led by social entrepreneurs, NGOs, and corporations have proven that sustainable solutions could provide safe water at the Base of the Pyramid. To illustrate these findings 15 case studies are provided of innovative social enterprises active in Africa and Asia.

HYSTRA (2011): Access to Safe Water for the Base of the Pyramid – Lessons Learned from 15 Case Studies. Hybrid Strategies Consulting URL [Accessed: 16.04.2018] PDF

Best Practices in Social Marketing Safe Water Solution for Household Water Treatment

This paper synthesises lessons learned, best practices, successes, and challenges of social marketing safe water solution, and discusses how these lessons may be applied to planning safe water treatment programs around the globe.

POUZN (2007): Best Practices in Social Marketing Safe Water Solution for Household Water Treatment. Lessons Learned from Population Services International Field Programs. Point-of-Use Water Disinfection and Zinc Treatment (POUZN) URL [Accessed: 20.09.2012]

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