Alan Andreasen has been a professor of marketing for more than 40 years, but he does not know much about writing advertisements.

“I am about taking ideas, breaking them down and making them usable to people on the ground,” says Prof Andreasen, who teaches at the McDonough business school of Georgetown University, Washington DC.

His focus is on social marketing – the use of marketing ideas to address “behaviours that are socially problematic”. He specialises in consumer behaviour and non-profit organisations.

Marketing in the private sector is about “getting people to buy stuff”, Prof Andreasen says. But the challenge in the non-profit sector “is not just to change attitudes but to get them to do things – to make behavioural changes” that lead to a healthier society.

“I try to get people to take more exercise, to eat better, to stop smacking their kids, or to wear seatbelts.”

It’s a tall order but, as a consultant to the World Bank, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Red Cross, and the Boys and Girls Club of America, he feels his work makes a difference.

“I am trying to influence behaviours that are really important,” he says. In contrast, whether people “choose to buy an iPod over some other MP3 player doesn’t seem important in the grand scheme of things”.

His work with non-profits has distinctive challenges. Whereas in the private sector marketing’s effect “shows up in the bottom line and people lose their jobs”, he says, “there’s no obvious pay-off” to marketing in the non-profit sector.

“If someone gets an immunisation for their child, or quits smoking, what happens? The rewards are either invisible or well in the future.”

He grew up in Canada, in what he calls a “traditional family”. His father worked for General Motors and moved the family all over the country – from Regina, Saskatchewan, to Montreal and Toronto

He attended the University of Western Ontario and got his degree in business administration in 1956. Then he went to New York and enrolled in a marketing masters at Columbia “while I figured out what to do with my life”.

A friend in the doctoral programme suggested he give it a try. “I rolled into it but I quickly became enamoured with that kind of life,” Prof Andreasen recalls. “I liked the scholarly side of it. Back then I imagined myself …teaching rather traditional marketing classes.”

He became interested in “the dark side of marketing” after he got his PhD in 1964 and took a job at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The 1960s were a tumultuous decade on US campuses and Prof Andreasen began to search for greater meaning.

An accounting course he volunteered to teach for entrepreneurs from ethnic minorities became a book about how the urban riots and Vietnam war protests had affected small business.

Writing that book piqued his interest in the “disadvantaged consumer”. In 1974, he moved to the University of Illinois where he ran a project for the Federal Trade Commission on unethical and illegal business practices.

It was one of the first times consumer satisfaction had been measured and the survey was not warmly received by businesses. “One of the conclusions was a lot of people out there were secretly seething. There’s a gold mine of information if only you’re willing to hear the feedback. But the notion from the corporate sector is that we want to keep our heads down.”

In the 1980s, he began to look at the “positive contributions of marketing concepts and ideas”. As a consultant he helped USAid promote family planning in the developing world and he has worked for public health programmes in Egypt, Thailand, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Yet the greatest satisfaction in his career has come from teaching, he says. “A lot of students are interested in social entrepreneurship – both in non-profits and corporations that have a heart.”

Prof Andreasen says that today’s MBAs are more interested in social issues than students used to be. “A lot are concerned about more than just making bucks. They would like to think of themselves as more than just money-grubbing, stock-maximising CEOs.”

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