Social marketing and higher education: partnering to achieve sustainable development goals

Chiara Hübscher*, Susanne Hensel-Börner, Jörg Henseler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
91 Downloads (Pure)


Purpose: Accomplishing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is imperative for societies to meet their grand challenges. Achieving these goals by 2030 requires sustainability change agents with a can-do-attitude. This study aims to show how institutions of higher education can become partners for social marketing in bringing forward such change agents. Design/methodology/approach: Taking a case study approach, this paper examines a master’s programme to identify factors relevant to educating sustainability change agents that can serve as a basis for a social marketing planning primer to foster the SDGs. Findings: This study presents the social marketing discipline with a viable option for supporting the achievement of the SDGs through higher education. Its contributions are twofold. First, it is shown that when interdisciplinarity and a project-based approach are conceptualized and organized to create a motivating and meaningful learning environment with the SDGs as guiding principles, students, as sustainability change agents, can increase awareness and have the potential to generate impacts regarding the SDGs at the individual, organizational and institutional levels. Second, based on this, the paper provides guidance to social marketers regarding the planning of a campaign targeting higher education institutions. The authors argue that the aim of this campaign should be to promote the implementation of the SDGs as guiding principles above all, as this can facilitate the process of students becoming sustainability change agents who help achieve the goals in a timely manner. Research limitations/implications: Whilst single case studies are usually limited in drawing generalizations, the present study offers a starting point for investigating the role of universities as a target group for social marketing in fostering further sustainable development. Building on its findings, future research could test the proposed social marketing planning primer and evaluate the impact on the SDGs at a larger scale than only one university. Practical implications: It is proposed to use the findings of the study to model a social marketing campaign aimed at universities to motivate them to help develop sustainability change agents in all disciplines by integrating the SDGs as guiding principles for study programmes. Social implications: Students’ impacts range from leading peers to buy sustainable products and consume less to influencing a company to adopt sustainable packaging, thereby contributing to social change. Originality/value: This study is among the first to examine the possible effect of a study programme on the SDGs at different societal levels by taking the perspectives of multiple stakeholders into account and combining the theory of higher education with sustainability and social marketing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76-104
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Social Marketing
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jan 2022


  • Change agents
  • Responsible management education
  • SDGs
  • Sustainable development goals
  • Sustainable management education


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