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10 September 2015

Social Purpose Partnerships: How does a social problem become a social problem?

Written by: Alex Hochuli, Senior Research Executive at Edelman Berland

Consumer Trends & Insight, Culture

Helping brands find a social purpose in which they can make a meaningful contribution is no straightforward task. We at Edelman Intelligence are often brought in to apply our objective processes and ensure a good ‘fit’ between a brand and the social purpose. Everyone’s familiar with the basic communication formula: “we are doing x to help solve y problem”. But what is this ‘problem’? How do we know if something is a social problem?

For example, it took until the 19th century for people to recognise poverty as a social problem. The 2005 slogan, ‘Make Poverty History’, would have made little sense three centuries ago. However, in today’s mediatised landscape, recognition and awareness of a social problem can occur far more quickly.

Think also about the numerous social responsibility initiatives adopted by organisations today: how did  body image, sustainability or the right to education become seen as an issue or problem? And why did they become defined in the specific the way they have?

There are two approaches to the study of social problems: the ‘naturalist’ approach and the ‘constructionist’ approach. The naturalist approach sees social problems as objective, pre-existing facts. It takes them for granted. The downside is, this approach does not help us understand how a certain condition became seen as problematic. That’s where the ‘constructionist’ approach comes in.

Take vegetarianism. Back in the 1980s and early ‘90s, vegetarianism advocates tried to argue that ‘meat is murder’. This only had limited success, because not everyone believed their moral claims. After a while, their claims changed from saying ‘meat is immoral’ to ‘meat is bad for your health’ (in Eating agendas: Food and nutrition as social problems). Shifting the story to health and wellbeing proved more successful – Vegetarianism transformed into a personal lifestyle choice, rather than an animal rights imperative. This changed not just the nature of the solution (vegetarianism), but also of the problem itself: ‘health’ was the problem, rather than ‘ethics’. But is that what the advocates wanted when they began their plight?

This shows us that the question of how you define a social problem is the crucial one. We shouldn’t take the existence of what we call ‘social problems’ for granted. People act based on perceptions, or what Walter Lippmann famously described as “the pictures inside our heads”, rather than a fixed objective reality. Brands must be careful: through their actions they influence these perceptions and the world around them. How can you make sure you make the right impact in the right places in an authentic way?

Understanding the social problems process, and keeping abreast of how the social and cultural landscape is changing is essential. Brands must be aware of the importance and visibility of a social problem and it is only by having a dynamic understanding of how social problems emerge, evolve – and sometimes fade away – that they can provide accurate, actionable insights to help them scape a social responsibility programme that makes valuable contributions.

Image: Emka74 /

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