1 Introduction

In 2015 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with at its heart the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UN, 2015). This finally provided a common framework towards a better future for different countries, governments, organisations, and citizens. The 17 SDGs include: (1) No poverty (2) Zero hunger (3) Good health and well-being (4) Quality education (5) Gender equality (6) Clean water and sanitation (7) Affordable and clean energy (8) Decent work and economic growth (9) Industry, innovation and infrastructure (10) Reduced inequalities (11) Sustainable cities and communities (12) Responsible consumption and production (13) Climate action (14) Life below water (15) Life on land (16) Peace, justice and strong institutions (17) Partnerships for the goals. Today, we are almost midway the foreseen timespan of achieving the goals by 2030. However, The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 clearly showed that all actors need to increase their efforts to successfully achieve the SDGs (UN, 2022a). This report highlights the negative effects of the COVID-19 crisis on issues like poverty, public health, food security, and learning possibilities. Furthermore, it also stresses the urgency of the climate change crisis and calls upon all actors to increase climate change mitigation strategies to change the negative effects of our unsustainable consumption patterns, oceans, biodiversity, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. The negative effects of the Ukrainian war are also discussed, as this has caused a major migration crisis, increasing energy prices and so much more, which results in rising inequalities (UN, 2022a). The UN report (2022a) is clear on one thing: all actors must act now.

One field that can have a positive effect on reaching the SDGs in time, is social marketing (Deshpande, 2019), which is the central theoretical framework in this study. Social marketing was defined in 2017 by the main associations as seeking “to develop and integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviour that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good.” (iSMA et al., 2017). Social marketing is therefore concerned with user-centric social change programs (Saunders et al., 2015). Historically, social marketing focused mainly on public health-related behaviour changes like tobacco cessation and physical activity promotion. Nonetheless in recent years, the field has focused more on other social issues like the environment, safety, and equality (Truong, 2014). Also, the field is adopting a more holistic view of behaviour change, where the focus lies on the entire system and behaviour change of all stakeholders instead of on a downstream (focus on primary target audience), midstream (focus on influential others around target audience), or upstream (focus on for example policymakers) approach (Duffy et al., 2020; Flaherty et al., 2020; May & Previte, 2016; Truong et al., 2019). To be as effective as possible, social marketing programs should contain all the following criteria: behaviour change, audience research, segmentation, exchange, marketing mix and competition (Andreasen, 2002), and theory use (Dietrich et al., 2022; NSMC, 2009; Truong et al., 2021). The effectiveness of social marketing programs in creating behaviour change has also been demonstrated in many instances, for example, in conservation behaviour (Veríssimo et al., 2018) and tobacco cessation (Gordon et al., 2006). As the SDGs are built upon major social issues that need solving, and social marketing interventions are effective in tackling social issues relevant to certain SDGs (for example ‘SDG 3: good health and wellbeing’), social marketing could play an important role in achieving the SDGs (Duane et al., 2021). Therefore, it is remarkable that the SDGs have gotten very limited attention in social marketing research (Truong & Saunders, 2021). Changes are however underway, in 2022 one of the main journals of the field, the Journal of Social Marketing, published a special issue on social marketing and the SDGs. However, the editors observe limited social marketing research explicitly addressing SDGs (Truong & Saunders, 2021). Nonetheless, as social marketing per definition focuses on solving social problems (Andreasen, 2006), as a rule, most social marketing research will be relevant in achieving the SDGs. Therefore, it is vital to do a mapping of social marketing research that also maps which SDGs the research helps to achieve.

Previous systematic reviews in the social marketing field have done the very important job of analysing social marketing programs and their effectiveness on specific topics (for example Almosa et al. (2017) on littering reduction, Carins and Rundle-Thiele (2014) on healthy nutrition, Green et al. (2019) on conservation, Kim et al. (2019) on food waste reduction, Kubacki et al. (2015) on interventions targeting children and, Sewak et al. (2021) on waste management reduction). Notwithstanding, the last systematic literature review on social marketing research that mapped published social marketing research, was conducted by Truong (2014). The study gave a clear overview of the state of social marketing literature by highlighting the number of published articles, author characteristics, and topics during the period of 1998–2012. After this period, no complete review of the state of the field has been conducted. Part of this gap was filled by the umbrella review conducted by Dietrich et al. (2022) as the authors analysed existing systematic literature reviews and meta-analyses over the last 50 years in the field. However, until now there has not been a new mapping of all social marketing literature published between 2013 and 2021. Additionally, past systematic literature reviews have consistently shown the topical dominance of public health in social marketing research (Dietrich et al., 2022; Truong, 2014). However, as the SDG report (UN, 2022a, b) stated, other topics like climate change (Deshpande, 2019), safety (Dietrich et al., 2022; Truong, 2014), and equality (Martam, 2016) need immediate action and increasing attention in social marketing. An updated mapping of social marketing over the past decade is therefore once more relevant. Also, no prior review analysed the evolution of the different topics in social marketing research. Nonetheless, for effectively guiding future research, this analysis is vital. Only by looking at the evolution of the different topics, social marketers will know which topics need increasing attention. Lastly, a new mapping should include an analysis of specifically the subtopics and their evolution in environmental social marketing. The field has long called for more focus on environmental issues (Almosa et al., 2017; Deshpande, 2019; Green et al., 2019; Kim et al., 2019; Osbaldiston & Schott, 2012; Takahashi, 2009; Truong, 2014; Veríssimo et al., 2018) and as the world is on the verge of a climate crisis and in the middle of an energy crisis (UN, 2022a), it is essential to analyse to what extent specific subtopics are being studied in environmental social marketing.

Therefore, it is vital to map the field of social marketing again ensuing Truong (2014) from the period of 2013–2021, with a focus on both the distribution and evolution of topics and subtopics being studied in social marketing research. Furthermore, this research will address the important task of aligning existing social marketing research with the specific SDGs that they are helping to achieve. The authors have decided to examine social marketing research and the SDGs from 2013, to cover the time period since the analysis of Truong (2014). This is prior to the creation of the SDGs in 2015, but this way we can also determine which of the goals were already being addressed, despite the SDGs not being explicitly formulated at the time. Furthermore, most topics of the SDG’s were already societally and politically relevant before their official creation. Concretely, we will focus on the following main research questions:

  • What is the state of social marketing research from 2013 to 2021?

  • What is the topical evolution in social marketing articles from 2013 to 2021?

  • Which SDGs have been (implicitly) addressed in social marketing research from 2013 to 2021 and how did these evolve?

By doing so, this research will provide a clear overview of the topics, subtopics, and SDGs being tackled in social marketing research from 2013 to 2021. This study is relevant for both practitioners and academics in the field by further guiding them toward topics, subtopics, and SDGs that demand additional attention from the field. This way, social marketing can progress in creating a positive impact on society and taking up its societal role by helping to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

2 Methodology

The main goal of this study is to map the state of all social marketing research (2013–2021) with a focus on the topical evolution and the different SDGs, thereby identifying gaps for future social marketing research. Although Truong (2014) conducted a systematic literature review (SLR), we consider a scoping review more appropriate for this specific research. Whereas an SLR is the best method for a study with very specific research questions that wants to discover the effectiveness of interventions, scoping reviews are broader and better suited to map the body of literature on a topic area, provide a clear indication of the volume of literature available, and to identify research gaps (Peters et al., 2015). SLRs will be narrower as they only include specific study designs, whereas this is not the purpose of a scoping review (Munn et al., 2018). Besides these different aims and research questions, the methodologies are similar in using transparent methods to comprehensively analyse all relevant literature connected to the research questions (Pham et al., 2014). The authors used the framework by Arksey and O’Malley (2005) with consideration to the additions by the Peters et al. (2015) for the methodology. Therefore, the authors started the study by creating a research protocol.

2.1 Research protocol

The research protocol consists of the author’s information, the title, the objective and question of the research, the background of the study, the inclusion criteria, the search strategy, the extraction of the results, and the presentation of the results (Peters et al., 2015). The protocol is also available upon request from the corresponding author. The next steps of the research (Arksey & O’Malley, 2005; Colquhoun et al., 2014) consisted of: (1) Identifying the research questions (see ‘Introduction’) (2) Identifying relevant studies (3) Selection of studies (4) Charting the data (5) Collating, Summarizing, and Reporting the Results. The optional final stage of a consultation exercise was not included because of time and resource restraints. For the reporting, the authors used the reporting guidelines of the Peters et al. (2015).

2.2 Identifying relevant studies

To find relevant literature, the authors used both Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science (WoS) and Elsevier’s Scopus (Scopus), as these databases are commonly used for general scientific literature (Kumpulainen & Seppänen, 2022). Web of Science was used in most systematic literature reviews in the field of social marketing (for example Almosa et al., 2017; Dietrich et al., 2022; Kim et al., 2019; Kubacki et al., 2017; Truong, 2014) and in scoping reviews on public health-related issues (Micallef et al., 2022; Williamson et al., 2020). However, the authors chose to combine Web of Science with Scopus, as Scopus has a stronger presence in the social sciences (Mongeon & Paul-Hus, 2016). By combining the two complementary databases, this study is made as representative as possible. Furthermore, only English-written literature was included, as social marketing research is mostly written in English (Truong et al., 2015). Additionally, to secure quality, we chose to only include peer-reviewed journal articles, review articles, early access articles, and proceeding papers published between 2013 and 2021. The search consisted of the following keywords: ALL=(Social Marketing) AND ALL=(behavio* AND (intervention* OR change OR strateg* OR promotion OR progam* OR (case stud*) OR trial* OR experiment*).

2.3 Selection of studies: eligibility criteria

Unlike past SLRs in the field that only include interventions, the authors wanted to include all literature on social marketing (2013–2021) in the scoping review. For this reason, both interventions, general social marketing research, and research that explicitly states to be relevant for future social marketing research, were included. This way, the scoping review aims to map all literature on social marketing (2013–2021). All the articles’ titles and abstracts (n = 11,482) were analysed to define whether a study was eligible for the scoping review. The literature’s main criterium is being on a topic that helps create personal and social good (iSMA et al., 2017). However, defining what constitutes ‘social good’, has already proved to be a difficult task and is dependent on both the ethical and political perspectives of the researcher (Gordon et al., 2016). A possible solution is to take a human rights-based approach towards social marketing (Szablewska & Kubacki, 2019). Therefore, the authors based the criteria of social good on the human rights topics of the United Nations (UN, 2022b); Civic space and democracy, Development and living in dignity, Equality and non-discrimination, Justice and the rule of law, Peace and security. When an article fitted within one of these categories, it was coded as focusing on social good. On top of the key criterium of social good, the article had to comply with one of the three following criteria: (1) the article had to focus on a social goal; changes in social behaviour, attitudes, beliefs, or policy (French & Russell-Bennett, 2015, iSMA et al., 2017). The authors decided to also include interventions that did not include all social marketing concepts (iSMA et al., 2017) because research has shown that most programs do not include all criteria (for example Dietrich et al., 2022; Truong, 2014). Hence, the choice was made to focus on the criterium of social goals because this is the one criterium that is always present in programs (Dietrich et al., 2022; Carins & Rundle-Thiele, 2014). (2) the authors also wanted to include articles on general social marketing research. For this reason, articles explicitly stating to be about social marketing were still included, even those articles that did not fit within one of the categories of social good, because per definition social marketing focuses on social good. (3) lastly the article had to explicitly state to be relevant for future social marketing research. However, both these articles and the ones on explicitly stating to be about social marketing (n = 1605) first went through a full-text analysis to check whether they were about social marketing and not social media marketing.

2.4 Charting the data

To chart all the data, the authors exported all relevant information from Web of Science and Scopus in an Excel file with predefined columns. The charted information consists of publication year, authors, title, abstract, source title, document title, conference title, author keywords, keywords plus, times cited, publisher, publisher’s city and correspondence address, and research areas. Furthermore, the following columns were added for further analysis: ‘Civic space and democracy’, ‘Development and living in dignity’, ‘Equality and non-discrimination’, ‘Justice and the rule of law’, ‘Peace and security’, ‘Social good’, ‘Social goal’, ‘Social marketing research’, ‘Future social marketing research’, ‘Relevant (yes/no)’, ‘Topic’, ‘Subtopic 1’, ‘Subtopic 2’, ‘SDG 1’, ‘SDG 2’, ‘SDG 3’ and ‘SDG 4’.

2.5 Synthesising the data

A mixed methods approach consisting of a qualitative and quantitative content analysis was applied. To summarise the data, the authors first conducted a qualitative content analysis, applying a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), applying three levels of coding; open coding, axial coding and selective coding. Grounded theory is an inductive approach, starting from the data, but we used the topics and subtopics discovered in previous systematic literature reviews (Dietrich et al., 2022; Takahashi, 2009; Truong 2014) as sensitizing or guiding concepts. Concretely this means that all articles were coded in a constant comparative way. This means that we first checked whether there was already an existing code that was relevant, before adding a new code to discover the emerging topics and subtopics. As such, in line with the typical feature of a qualitative content analysis and the study selection in scoping reviews, the coder remained open to new emerging themes as the coding evolved (Bryman, 2012; Colquhoun et al., 2014). Furthermore, all the developed categories were checked by both authors. This qualitative content analysis resulted in a list of topics and subtopics which were assigned to the articles. Additionally, a quantitative content analysis was used for the frequency analysis of the topics and subtopics. The SDGs were quantitively coded based on a coding manual which outlined which topics and subtopics were in line with the targets defined by the UN (UN, 2015). One coder went through all the literature (n = 9421) and when in doubt, the coding was discussed within the research team. Besides this close reading, the authors wanted to include Natural Language Processing by using 4CAT Capture and Analysis Toolkit (Peeters & Hagen, 2021). First, all articles were uploaded to the program and after tokenising all the words, a frequency analysis per word in the abstracts was carried out. This way, the authors could see whether the most studied topics were also the most used concepts in the abstracts of the articles.

3 Results

The results of the study will be presented by focusing on three main sections: social marketing research in general, the topics studied in social marketing research, with a specific focus on environmental social marketing research and finally, the SDGs being addressed in social marketing research.

3.1 Social marketing literature

The initial search accounted for 12,710 titles. After filtering on the right type of documents (articles, proceeding papers, review articles and early access articles) and dates (2013–2021), and leaving out duplicates, 9421 articles remained for the screening process. After analysing the articles based on the eligibility criteria, 1251 articles were coded as social marketing research and were included for further bibliometric performance analyses (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

PRISMA flowchart

3.1.1 Evolution of the number of articles published (2013–2021)

During the period 2013–2021, the number of published social marketing literature has increased (Fig. 2). In 2013, only 112 articles were published, whereas in 2021 this number has almost doubled with 212 articles being published. This is in line with previous mappings of the field, which showed an increasing number of published articles until 2012 (Truong, 2014; Truong et al., 2015). Now we can see that also after 2012, the field has continued to grow.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Evolution number of articles (n = 1251)

3.1.2 Most occurring journals

To further map social marketing literature from 2013 to 2021 (n = 1251), the authors conducted a bibliometric performance analysis of the journals in which most literature was published. As can be seen in Fig. 3, most articles were published in the Journal of Social Marketing (n = 95, 7.6%), followed by Social Marketing Quarterly (n = 92, 7.4%). As the Journal of Social Marketing was only launched in 2011, from 1998 to 2012, only 3.2% of all articles were published in this journal (Truong, 2014). Now we can see that the journal has substantially grown and is currently, along with Social Marketing Quarterly, a very influential journal in the field. Next in line are more focused journals, such as International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (n = 35, 2.8%), BMC Public Health (n = 25, 2%), Health Promotion Practice (n = 16, 1.3%), Appetite (n = 14, 1.1%), Journal of Health Communication (n = 13, 1%), Journal of Marketing Management (n = 13, 1%), Nutrients (n = 13, 1%), Sustainability (n = 11, 0.9%), BMJ Open (n = 11, 0.9%), Plos one (n = 11, 0.9%), Social Science & Medicine (n = 11, 0.9%), International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing (n = 10, 0.8%), Translational Behavioral Medicine (n = 10, 0.8%), International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Acitivity (n = 9, 0.7%), Public Health Nutrition (n = 8, 0.6%), Obesity Reviews (n = 8, 0.6%), Journal of Sustainable Tourism (n = 8, 0.6%), Journal of Macromarketing (n = 8, 0.6%), and International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing (n = 8, 0.6%). The other journals in the dataset published seven or fewer articles from 2013 to 2021.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Most occuring journals (n = 1251)

3.1.3 Author characteristics

To shine a light on the most influential authors in the field, we did a bibliometric performance analysis on the most occurring first authors (Fig. 4). Truong V.D. was the most publishing first author in social marketing research from 2013 to 2021 (n = 10). Followed by Rundle-Thiele S. who was first author in seven articles. These two authors were followed by authors who published five articles, like Kennedy A.M., Septianto F., Carins J.E., Evans W.D., Ayikwa L.C., and Pang B. Then, authors who published four articles were Hall C.M., Kite J., Brennan L., Kubacki K., Gordon R., Pettigrew S., Tweneboah-Kodua E.Y., Bordens D.S., and Issock P.B.I. Last, many authors published three articles as the first author, for example, Velema E., Domegan C., Veríssimo D., Gregory-Smith D., David P., Kim J., and Luca N.R.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Most occuring first authors (n = 1251)

3.1.4 Geographical focus

To study the geographical focus of the articles on social marketing, both the publishers’ city (WoS) and the correspondence address of the authors (Scopus) were used. Geographically speaking, most articles were written or published in journals originating from the United Kingdom (36%, n = 436), followed by the United States of America (24.7%, n = 299), Australia (7.1%, n = 86), Switzerland (5.6%, n = 68), Belgium (5.3%, n = 64), the Netherlands (3.5%, n = 42), Canada (3.1%, n = 37), Spain (1.1%, n = 13), New Zealand (1%, n = 12), and India (1%, n = 10) (Fig. 5). In other countries, only fewer than ten articles were published. From this analysis, it becomes apparent that social marketing-related research and publications are scarce in Africa and, except for eight publications in Brazil and two publications in Peru, they are also scarce in South America. This geographical focus in developed countries has also been shown by Dietrich et al. (2022) and Truong et al. (2015). Nevertheless, things are changing, and the field is focusing on internationalising social marketing research. This can be seen in almost all regions having their own social marketing association in 2022: The Social Marketing Association of North America (SMANA), The Latin American Social Marketing Association (LAMSO), The European Social Marketing Association (ESMA), The Australian Association of Social Marketing (AASM), The Pacific Northwest Social Marketing Association (PNSMA) and The Africa Social Marketing Association. In 2023 the first African Social Marketing Conference will be organised, and the World Social Marketing Conference will be held in Columbia.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Geographical focus of social marketing publishers/authors

3.2 Distribution and evolution of topics in social marketing research (n = 1251)

The authors found eight main topics being studied in social marketing literature from 2013 to 2021, namely, ‘public health’, ‘environment’, ‘social marketing research in general’, ‘safety’, ‘equality’, ‘environment and public health’, ‘public health and equality’, and ‘prosocial issues’. When taking a closer look at the distribution of the share per topic (Fig. 6), it becomes apparent that public health remains the most studied topic in social marketing research (57%, n = 709). Followed by environmental issues (23%, n = 282), social marketing research in general (12%, n = 153), safety (4%, n = 55), environmental and public health-related issues (2%, n = 22), equality (1%, n = 17), public health and equality (1%, n = 9), and prosocial issues (0.3%, n = 4).

Fig. 6
figure 6

Distribution topics in social marketing research (n = 1251)

3.2.1 Public health (n = 718)

The topical dominance of public health is in line with previous systematic reviews on social marketing research (Truong, 2014). The finding that public health is still the dominant topic in the field was also supported by the ‘top vector’ analysis in 4CAT, which showed that ‘health’ and ‘healthy’ were both part of the most used concepts in the abstracts throughout the last eight years (Fig. 7: green). Concepts related to the environment were almost not found (only ‘energy’ in 2016–2018: red) and concepts related to the other topics were not found in the most occurring terms.

Fig. 7
figure 7

Evolution top 25 most occurring concepts in abstracts (n = 1251)

For the analysis of the evolution of the different topics, the authors always calculated the relative share of the topic in that year compared to the total number of articles in that year (2013, n = 112; 2014, n = 104; 2015, n = 130; 2016, n = 119; 2017, n = 147; 2018, n = 145; 2019, n = 121; 2020, n = 161; 2021, n = 212).

To look at the evolution of articles on public health, we also included the articles on public health and equality (n = 9), which are articles focusing on health-related topics and people with low income or generally underserved people. Taking a closer look at the evolution of health-related articles from 2013 to 2021 (Fig. 8), the yearly share of public health-related articles has slightly decreased. However, the topic is still dominant in the field with in 2021 56% (n = 118) of all literature (n = 212) focusing on public health. Most articles on public health dealt with nutrition (24%, n = 171), activity (11%, n = 80), prevention (10%, n = 70), alcohol (9%, n = 68), HIV prevention (8%, n = 55), obesity (6%, n = 42), anticonception (3%, n = 23), children obesity (3%, n = 22), vaccination (3%, n = 22) mental health (2%, n = 17), cancer prevention (2%, n = 17), hand hygiene (2%, n = 12), communication (2%, n = 12), diabetes (2%, n = 11) and public health and equality (2%, n = 11).

Fig. 8
figure 8

Evolution share of public health (n = 1251)

3.2.2 Environmental issues (n = 304)

Both articles with the topic ‘environment’ (n = 282) and ‘environment and public health’ (n = 22) were considered for the analysis of environmental social marketing research. With 304 articles (25%), environmental issues are the second most studied topic in social marketing literature. Compared to past mappings of social marketing interventions, the share of environmental issues in social marketing research has been growing. For example, Truong (2014) found that 3.7% of all social marketing research covered environmental protection (1998–2012). In 2022, Dietrich et al. found that 10% of the social marketing interventions in the umbrella review were focused on environmental issues.

Looking at the linear evolution of environmental social marketing research from 2013 to 2021, it is apparent that its’ share has further increased (Fig. 9). However, we also notice that over the last two years (2020–2021), environmental social marketing’s yearly share has decreased, which is quite disturbing with the world on the verge of a climate crisis (UN, 2022a). As discussed in the introduction, the authors also took a closer look at the evolution of the different subtopics in environmental social marketing, this way we can also identify the subtopics that have been losing attention.

Fig. 9
figure 9

Evolution share of environmental articles (n = 1251)

Overall, eleven most studied subtopics were found in environmental social marketing. Taking a closer look at the distribution of the subtopics in environmental social marketing (n = 331Footnote 1) (Fig. 10), it becomes apparent that energy (21%, n = 70) is studied the most. Followed by waste reduction (17%, n = 56), biodiversity conservation (16%, n = 53), mobility (8%, n = 28), sustainable tourism (8%, n = 26), sustainable products (6%, n = 20), water conservation (6%, n = 20), communication (4%, n = 14), de-consumption (3%, n = 9), meat consumption (2%, n=5), climate change adaptation (2%, n = 5) and others, which were studied less than five times (7%, n = 22), these consisted for example of topics on climate change activism, knowledge, climate scepticism, air pollution, and deforestation.

Fig. 10
figure 10

Distribution environmental topics

To analyse the evolution of the different subtopics in environmental social marketing, the share of the topic as compared to the total of subtopics per year (2013, n = 20; 2014, n = 19; 2015, n = 22; 2016, n = 29; 2017, n = 47; 2018, n = 50; 2019, n = 42; 2020, n = 54; 2021, n = 48), was calculated. The yearly share of articles on waste reduction (17%) has remained constant from 2013 to 2021 with even a small increase. The share of the topics biodiversity conservation (16%), sustainable tourism (8%), sustainable products (6%), and water conservation (6%) have remained quite stable over the years. Despite energy being the subtopic with the largest share (21%) in all environmental articles, its yearly share has decreased since 2016 (Fig. 11). Articles on energy focus mostly on residential energy conservation, and the consumption of renewable energy products.

Fig. 11
figure 11

Evolution yearly share of energy (n = 331)

The subtopic ‘mobility’ (8%, n = 28), which consists of articles on cycling, public transportation, and electric vehicles, has been studied with ups and downs from 2013 to 2021 (Fig. 12). In 2014, 26% of all environmental subtopics of that year (n = 19), were concerned with mobility-related issues. Whereas this was only 8% in 2021.

Fig. 12
figure 12

Evolution yearly share of mobility (n = 331)

Finally, both communication (4%), de-consumption (4%), meat consumption (2%), and climate change adaptation (2%) have been studied to a very little extent in the field with little change over the last eight years.

3.2.3 General social marketing literature (n = 153)

General social marketing literature accounts for 12% (n = 153) of all social marketing research literature (n = 1251). When looking at the evolution over the last eight years (2013–2021), we can see that it was studied rather consistently (Fig. 13). This is in line with the findings of Truong (2014) in the mapping from 1998 to 2012, who found that articles focusing on social marketing theory accounted for 10% of all social marketing research. It must be noted that this scoping review also included general research on social marketing under this topic, for example, articles on systems social marketing etc.

Fig. 13
figure 13

Evolution yearly share of general social marketing research (n = 1251)

Most articles in the category of general social marketing research (n = 153) consist of research on the broad field of social marketing (conceptual frameworks, tools, effectiveness, etc.) (64%, n = 98), the other articles in this group focus on strategies (for example communication and social norms) (16%, n = 24), systems thinking (9%, n = 14), upstream social marketing (5%, n = 8), midstream social marketing (3%, n = 4) or social marketing in education (2%, n = 2).

3.2.4 Evolution safety (n = 55), equality (n = 17), and prosocial behaviour (n = 4)

‘Safety’ (4%, n = 55), ‘equality’ (1%, n = 17), and ‘prosocial’ (0.3%, n = 4), related issues were studied to a very limited extent in social marketing research (n = 1251). The articles on ‘safety’ (n = 55) are mostly of literature on driving (45%, n = 25), sexual violence (27%, n = 15) and cyber security (7%, n = 4). The literature on ‘equality’ (n = 17), consisted mostly of articles on gender equality (35%, n = 6), race (18%, n = 3), employment (12%, n = 2), mental health (12%, n = 2), and poverty (6%, n = 1). Finally, the ‘prosocial’ articles (0.3%, n = 4) were related to helping others (n = 1) and decreasing antisocial behaviour (n = 3).

3.3 Social marketing and the SDGs

Overall, a total of 1102 articles were found to be in line with certain SDGs. Only 149 articles were found to be tackling no specific SDG as they focused on theories, conceptual frameworks, tools, and the effectiveness of social marketing research in general. As can be seen in Fig. 14, the number of SDGs per year follows the increasing evolution of the number of articles found per year. However, the number of SDGs per year is always a little bit higher as most articles align with multiple SDGs.

Fig. 14
figure 14

Evolution number of articles (n = 1251) and SDGs (n = 1521)

When looking at the distribution of the different SDGs in social marketing research (Fig. 15), we can see that ‘SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing’ (n = 783, 51%), has by far been focused on the most. This is in line with the fact that public health is the most studied topic in social marketing.

Fig. 15
figure 15

Distribution number of SDGs in social marketing research (n = 1521)

Regarding the evolution of the different SDGs, we looked at the evolution of the yearly share of the specific SDG. This was important as the number of social marketing articles in general has increased over the years, so only looking at the yearly number of an SDG would not be correct. With respect to the evolution of the yearly share of SDG 3 (see Fig. 16), we can see that its share has slightly decreased over the years. In 2021, only 50% of all articles addressed the SDG, while in 2015, still 63% of all articles focused on SDG 3. This is in line with the finding that the share of public health-related articles has decreased from 2013 to 2021. However, when looking at the number of articles in line with SDG 3, we do see an increase from 2013 to 2021. This shows that although its share has decreased, still a lot of social marketing literature is working on this topic. Although overall, the social marketing literature has been growing as well.

Then, three SDGs were approximately tackled to the same extent: SDGs 11, 12 and 2. First, ‘SDG 2: zero hunger’, was found to be tackled in 157 articles, centred mostly on public health and nutrition. The yearly share of this SDG has also remained constant and has even increased to a small amount. This is important as one of the most severe consequences of the war in Russia and COVID-19 is food insecurity (UN, 2022a). When looking at ‘SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities’ (11%, n = 98), with articles that focus on sustainable mobility or safety, residential and local energy conservation, and waste prevention, we can see that this SDG’s number decreased a lot between 2018 and 2019, which can be explained by the decrease in articles on both residential energy conservation and mobility. However, from 2020 its share began to lightly increase again because in 2020 and 2021 more articles were written on waste prevention (Fig. 16). This means that overall, the SDG’s share has remained stable. The ‘SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production’ was tackled in the social marketing literature (8%, n = 125) with studies on waste reduction, de-consumption, sustainable products, sustainable tourism, reducing meat consumption and illegal wildlife trade and has been studied quite a lot over the last eight years (Fig. 16). Both the increase of articles on waste reduction, sustainable products, and meat consumption, can explain the increasing trend in SDG 12.

Fig. 16
figure 16

Evolution share of SDG 2, SDG 3, SDG 11, and SDG 12 (n = 1521)

‘SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy’ (5%, n = 70) and ‘SDG 15: Life on land’ (5%, n = 70) were overall focused on to the same extent. Those articles addressing SDG 7, focused on residential energy conservation, new renewable energy sources and products like improved cookstoves, solar panels and electric vehicles. As already shown in the evolution of the subtopics in environmental social marketing and now also shown in the evolution of SDG 7 (Fig. 17) the number of articles in line with this SDG has decreased since 2016, which is very troublesome amid an energy crisis. The articles relevant to SDG 15 concentrated on biodiversity, water conservation and deforestation. This SDG’s yearly share increased from 2017 to 2019. However, in 2021 its share only counted for 4% of all SDGs (n = 254) (Fig. 17).

Fig. 17
figure 17

Evolution share of SDG 7 and SDG 15 (n = 1521)

Overall, three SDGs were only focused on to a very small extent (2 − 1%), yet, they have been addressed more over the last three years (2019–2021). Namely, ‘SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation’ (2%, n = 33) with articles focusing on water sanitation and conservation, ‘SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions’ (1%, n = 22) mainly focusing on inclusive and safe societies, equal justice and law and prosocial behaviour, and also ‘SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals’ (1%, n = 18) which consists of articles on systems thinking in social marketing (Domegan, 2021; Khayame & Abdeljawad, 2020).

Both ‘SDG 13: Climate action’ (1%, n = 18), with articles on climate change knowledge, scepticism, activism, and adaptation, and ‘SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth’ (1%, n = 21) with articles primarily focusing on sustainable tourism (by for example Al-Kubaisi & Ibrahim 2021) and equality in education, job creation and employment (for example by Paver et al., 2020) remained stable over the last eight years but have overall received only little attention.

Besides SDGs with an increasing or stable evolution, both the share of ‘SDG 10: Reduced inequalities’ (2%, n = 35) and ‘SDG 5: Gender equality’ (1%, n = 11) have been slightly decreasing the last few years. Lastly, there were four SDGs which were rarely studied: ‘SDG 14: Life below water’ (1%, n = 8), ‘SDG 4: Quality education’ (0.5%,n = 8), ‘SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure’ (0.3%, n = 4), and ‘SDG 1: No poverty’ (0.2%, n = 3) (only by Lagarde 2014; Truong & Hall, 2015; and Yoon 2017).

4 Discussion and implications for future research and practices

The mapping of social marketing literature with the SDGs from 2013 to 2021, has highlighted some interesting decreasing trends and understudied topics which can guide possible tracks for future social marketing research and practices. Therefore, this study will end with a discussion on these most problematic topics and give more insight into the specific tactics to achieve the SDGs (UN, 2015), that are still under-researched in social marketing literature. First, we will examine environmental social marketing and then focus on matters related to safety, equality, and prosocial issues.

First, looking into environmental social marketing research, we saw a decreasing trend in the share of the topic ‘energy’. This was also reflected in the aligned ‘SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy’, which also showed a decreasing trend over the last eight years. The fact that in 2016 38% of all articles were still on energy and in 2021 only 3 articles (8%) were concerned with energy-related topics (n = 2: electric vehicle uptake; n = 1: improved cookstoves) is quite troubling, knowing that the world is in the middle of an energy crisis and that therefore, energy efficiency will be even more important to achieve (UN, 2022a). For this reason, to have a positive impact, the field of social marketing should increase its efforts towards this topic again. Looking into the articles that covered this topic and comparing them to the tactics outlined for achieving the SDGs (UN, 2015), it becomes clear that social marketing could still enhance its efforts into (1) the universal access towards energy services and (2) increasing the share of renewable energy. To target the first one, there is a need for more upstream social marketing efforts on environmental social marketing. This was also made clear by the low share of ‘SDG 13: Climate action’. Over the last eight years, no articles were seen focusing on influencing policy towards pro-environmental behaviour change. Then, to target the latter, articles on energy mostly focus on the consumption of, for example, solar panels. However, other products like heat pumps, have not been covered in social marketing research. Overall, some articles have also focused on residential energy conservation behaviours, however, they remain focused on easy behaviour changes with less impact on the environment. Social marketers should also try to focus more on behaviour changes with a larger pro-environmental impact (for example the choice of residence type, choice of residence location, choice of building materials and design, purchase of installations of the house, or the installation of wind turbines, hot water solar panels, or similar technologies) (Timmermans et al., 1992). Additionally, we saw a decreasing trend in articles on ‘mobility’, with in 2020 even no articles being published on the topic. The aligned SDG’s trend has however remained stable. This is because ‘SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities’ is also in line with articles on, for example, waste prevention, which have been increasing. COP26 has repeatedly stressed the importance of changes in our mobility behaviour, whereas road transportation accounts for over 10% of greenhouse gas emissions (COP26, 2022), countries have set out for new cars to have zero emissions by 2040 globally. However, in 2021 only three articles were found to be focusing on the adoption of electric vehicles. Therefore, it is a major gap that the research field does not adequately address this issue. Social marketers should take up this role. Furthermore, there were four topics in environmental social marketing which have received very little attention in the field: de-consumption, meat consumption, communication, and climate change adaptation. Although the low share, both articles on de-consumption and meat consumption have increased over the last eight years. This is also visible in the aligned ‘SDG 12: responsible consumption and production’ with an increasing trend over the last years. Social marketers should pay more attention to communication related articles on environmental problems. There are a lot of articles on communication strategies found in the general social marketing articles, but their share is low on environmental topics. However, research has shown that communication can still be a sore issue in the field, for example, choosing the right messages (Cook et al., 2021) and the focus on strictly providing information to people (McKenzie-Mohr, 2000, p.244). More research on pro-environmental communication can also help with the low number of articles on ‘SDG 13: Climate action’. We did see that there are only limited articles on creating climate change awareness and knowledge or decreasing climate change scepticism. In line with this SDG and a topic with little attention over the years is climate change adaptation. However, in times where droughts, floods and other extreme weather conditions will become more prominent, more social marketing research on this topic is also vital. It is important for social marketers to keep focusing on climate change mitigation strategies; however, climate change adaptation will also be a prominent part in the future. To conclude the discussion on environmental social marketing, it must be mentioned that ‘SDG 14: Life below water’ has received very little attention in social marketing research. This in contrast to both ‘SDG 15: Life on land’ and ‘SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation’, which focus on biodiversity and water conservation on land. Apparently, there are not that many social marketers focusing on conserving the oceans and marine resources. Social marketing research could help this important SDG by focusing more on reducing marine pollution, restoration of marine and coastal ecosystems, reduce ocean acidification, reduce overfishing, and focus on conserving coastal and marine areas. By focusing on these tactics, the field can really help to conserve our oceans, the planet’s largest ecosystem.

The amount of literature on ‘safety’ in social marketing has always been quite scarce, as Truong (2014) found 2.3% of all articles to be on safety and Dietrich et al. (2022) identified only 3%, named under the heading ‘social’. The topics of equality and prosocial issues have not been called upon in previous mappings of the field, but we did see that their share is increasing a little bit year by year. However, overall, the share of these three topics remains small compared to research on public health and environmental issues. One SDG that was in line with articles on these three topics was ‘SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions’. Articles in line with this SDG focused on children abuse, violence (mostly sexual violence) and to a small part on prosocial behaviour changes. Compared to the targets to achieve the SDGs (UN, 2015), social marketing literature has not or only to a very little extent focused on crime and corruption, on upstream social marketing focused on equality and inclusivity, and on inclusive societies in general. As issues like corruption, unsafety, and conflicts are worsening all over the world (UN, 2022a), social marketing could have an important impact on achieving this SDG by promoting peaceful and inclusive societies. This lack of research on inclusivity and equality also becomes apparent in the decreasing trends of both ‘SDG 10: reduced inequalities’ and ‘SDG 5: gender equality’. When comparing the existing literature in line with SDG 10 with the targets that need to be reached (UN, 2015), it becomes apparent that social marketing should further enhance its efforts into migration related equality issues. Also ‘SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth’ is in line with articles on equality and from its low share, it becomes clear that social marketing should increase its focus on both employment and equality in income. Lastly, there were three other SDGs in line with equality and they received the least attention in the field, namely ‘SDG 1: No poverty’, ‘SDG 9: Industry, innovation, and infrastructure’, and ‘SDG 4: Quality education’. These three SDGs with very minimal attention in social marketing research, have an impact on poverty inequality. Truong (2014) already called on the field to focus more on poverty-related issues, but as can now be seen, this has not been the case in the subsequent eight years (2013–2021), and these issues remain underrepresented. One of the possible reasons for this lack of attention could be the fact that social marketing is predominantly published in the developed world parts, where these issues are sometimes less of a priority. After the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty issues have however become even more important as the pandemic pushed millions of people into extreme poverty and wiped out four years of progress against poverty (UN, 2022a). Now, with for example the war in Ukraine and possible migration crisis, this becomes even more relevant. Therefore, social marketing should focus more on these poverty-related issues and help find solutions for poverty inequality.

The purpose of this discussion was to give more insight into which tactics of the SDGs (UN, 2015) are not being studied in social marketing research. This way, we want to guide future social marketing research into topics that could really make an impact. However, it should be noted that by highlighting the most problematic topics and SDGs (those that have received the least attention and those with a decreasing trend over the last years), we don’t suggest that the field should stop studying the other topics and SDGs. These also remain very important, however, from this study it becomes apparent that they are receiving increasing attention in the social marketing domain.

5 Limitations

This research also has its limitations. Firstly, due to the high number of articles, the initial analysis was strictly based on the titles and abstracts of the literature (n = 9421), then those articles explicitly stating to be relevant for (future) social marketing research (n = 1605) also went through a full text analysis. Secondly, another limitation of the study is the fact that despite following the Peters et al. (2015) guidelines, only one coder went through all the articles (n = 9421). The coding categories were decided with the research team and a selected subsample was coded by two researchers. The cases where there were doubts were also discussed with the research team. Furthermore, as this research is a scoping review, it did not include a check of the quality of the articles as this is not normally included in a scoping review. To still guarantee quality literature, the authors chose to only include peer-reviewed journal articles, review articles, early access articles, and proceeding papers published between 2013 and 2021. Lastly, this scoping review remains rather descriptive as the goal is to map the field and to show the topical evolution of both the topics and the SDGs in line with social marketing research. Explanations on the evolutions of the topics and the SDGs are not within the scope of this study, however, the authors urge future research to try to explain these trends as well.

6 Conclusion

The main goal of this research was to first look at the state of social marketing research (2013–2021) and to map the field of social marketing by highlighting the topical evolution and SDGs being addressed from 2013 to 2021. This is an important contribution to the social marketing field as the last mapping of all published literature stems from 1998 to 2012 and no previous mapping have included aligning the literature with the SDGs or studying the topical evolution. A total of 9421 articles were retrieved from Web of Science and Scopus for the screening, whereof 1251 articles were coded as social marketing and selected for further analyses. The scoping review first showed that the field of social marketing is still growing, with a steady increase in the number of articles published from 2013 to 2021. Furthermore, the results highlight the topical dominance of public health-related issues and the aligned ‘SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing’, however, it did show a decreasing evolution of this topic’s share from 2013 to 2021. In addition, a greater proportion of environmental-related topics were shown in comparison to previous mappings (Truong, 2014), which the field has long called for (Takahashi, 2009). However, the study showed that over the last three years (2019–2021) both the share and number of environmental research have decreased. After analysing the subtopics in environmental social marketing, the results showed that this decrease was caused by a yearly decrease in the share of articles on energy (and SDG 7) and mobility. Overall, communication, de-consumption, meat-consumption, and climate change adaptation have also been barely studied in environmental social marketing (2013–2021). After discovering the evolution of the different topics in social marketing, the study highlighted which SDGs are in line with the existing social marketing literature (2013–2021). The study found that both SDG 10 and SDG 5 have been decreasing over the last eight years. Overall, four SDGs were found to be problematic as they are almost not being studied in social marketing research, these are: SDG 14, SDG 4, SDG 9, and SDG 1, which is very problematic as the field of social marketing could create positive behaviour change in line with these SDGs. This research can guide future social marketers and academics by mapping the field of social marketing, looking at the topical evolution and the SDGs in line with the literature of the last eight years (2013–2021), and thus achieve a real positive impact in society.

This is the first scoping review on social marketing research from 2013 to 2021. Also, this scoping review is the first systematic review in the field to map the SDGs in line with existing social marketing research and to look at the evolutions of the topics in social marketing research. Accordingly, this research has both academic and practical implications for the field of social marketing and will help the field to further create a positive impact and ultimately help achieve the SDGs by 2030.