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Social Marketing for Universities: Importance of the SDGs for the training of change agents

Interview with our HSBA PhD student and colleague Chiara Hübscher about her current paper in which she examines the role of the SDGs for the education of change agents using the example of the MSc programme Digital Transformation & Sustainability.

"If we want to implement the United Nations 2030 Agenda, we need to partner with higher education institutions. Because this is where we train the change agents who have the potential to make an impact related to the SDGs at the individual, organisational, and institutional levels."  Chiara Hübscher

Tomorrow marks six years since the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set by the United Nations General Assembly as part of the 2030 Agenda. But awareness of these goals is less than 50% worldwide, according to surveys. Even if the figure were 100%, this would not solve the problem, because awareness alone is not enough. Human behaviour needs to change on an individual and societal level. The ways universities could contribute to this by training change agents is what our PhD student Chiara Hübscher has been thinking about. As part of her dissertation, she conducted a case study to examine the role of universities and their students in raising awareness and implementing the SDGs at different levels of society, taking a closer look at HSBA's MSc Digital Transformation and Sustainability programme. The Journal of Social Marketing recently published the article* she wrote in collaboration with Professor Dr. Susanne Hensel-Börner, Head of MSc Digital Transformation and Sustainability at HSBA, and Professor Dr. ir. Jörg Henseler, Chair of Product-Market Relations, Faculty of Engineering Technology, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands. We took the opportunity to ask our PhD student and colleague from the Business Development Department a few questions.  


Dear Chiara, you do research in the field of social marketing, a discipline that deals with the design, implementation and evaluation of strategies aimed at bringing about a change in social consciousness. How did you get the idea to investigate the role of the SDGs?

The first time I really noticed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was in the context of my job as Senior Manager for Student Recruitment & Company Relations at HSBA, more precisely when the Digital Transformation & Sustainability degree programme was launched. Since then, my main task as an HSBA employee has been to interview applicants for this master's programme at HSBA. The MSc Digital Transformation & Sustainability programme has taken the SDGs as its guiding principle, so, in preparation for the interviews with applicants, I inevitably had to deal with these goals as well. Dealing with the goals brought me even closer to the topic of sustainable development because the SDGs so wonderfully reflect the breadth of the topic. And suddenly I was encountering the topic more and more frequently in the context of my research work as a doctoral student as well. So, when I saw the Journal of Social Marketing's call for papers ("Social Marketing and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: I, We, and All of Us"), I knew that I wanted to contribute to raising awareness and achieving the SDGs and thus also give my research a stronger focus on sustainability. In this context, I then also delved deeper into the concept of social marketing.

"The 17 SDGs are a clear mandate and make the complexity of tasks for sustainable development clear. In the degree programme, they serve as a guiding principle and orientation framework to firmly anchor the topic of sustainability and the necessary transformation in the mindset of students and teachers (and to turn them into change agents)." Prof. Dr Susanne Hensel-Börner

Can you explain again what social marketing is and how to measure social marketing success? 

Simply put, social marketing uses the techniques of marketing to influence people's behaviour for the good of society. A well-known example of a social marketing campaign is probably "Don't give AIDS a chance" or, more recently, "A-H-A: distance, hygiene, everyday mask". However, these examples also make it clear that the success of a social marketing campaign is difficult to measure. In theory, social marketing is considered successful if the desired behaviour is achieved within the target group. But how many people actually changed their behaviour as a result of the A-H-A campaign, i.e., kept more distance, washed their hands more often and wore the mask, is very difficult to assess. Of course, this challenge has also occupied me in the context of my own research. Nevertheless, the results of our study suggest that students as change agents have a very positive impact on raising awareness and achieving the SDGs. We should make more use of this potential by encouraging colleges and universities through a social marketing campaign to embed the SDGs as a guiding principle in study programmes, regardless of discipline.

The study examined the master's programme in Digital Transformation and Sustainability (MSc), or DTS for short, at HSBA. Can you give us a few examples of such positive impact that students/graduates of the DTS created?

In the publication there are lots of examples of students from the DTS programme and how they have contributed to sustainable development (as well as examples of our faculty leading by example, by the way). To name just one: two students started a sustainable packaging project in their company (besides their actual job there). Even though Corona has put a bit of a damper on the project, the management is still planning to implement a new, more sustainable packaging strategy. This would mean, for example, a contribution to SDG 12 - "Responsible Production" - as the implementation of the project can lead to increased resource efficiency and an improved material footprint.

Together with Prof. Dr. Susanne Hensel-Börner (HSBA) and Prof. Dr. Jörg Henseler (University of Twente), you have drafted a guide for a social marketing campaign. What is the goal of this campaign and how can we envision this guide? 

Sustainability is such an interdisciplinary field. Successfully advancing sustainable development requires people from many different disciplines with a wide range of expertise. And although the topic of business ethics, for example, has now been integrated into the curricula of our colleges and universities for some time, we still think too much in silos. In my opinion, there is a lack of the necessary networking of the topic within a discipline, but also between different disciplines, and ultimately also a lack of handouts for practical implementation. We want to change that by means of a social marketing campaign.
With our study, we want to show that if the topic of sustainable development is anchored in a study programme across the boundaries of individual modules, and if this study programme also offers space to practice sustainable behaviour, then students can actually become ambassadors for sustainable development. They take their knowledge and actions out of the study programme into their workplace and their environment. To summarise, the principle of the study is: first, universities should promote sustainable development among their students. Then students should change their behaviour and promote sustainable development in their environment. Finally, the environment should be encouraged to change its behaviour in favour of more sustainable development. The more people that participate in sustainable development, the more sustainable we become. Therefore, as many universities as possible should engage in educating change agents for sustainable development. The results of our study are twofold: first, we show that students of the study programme under investigation act as change agents and prove this with practical examples. Secondly, we examine which elements in the education of these students were relevant in turning them into change agents. And this is exactly where the guide developed as part of the study comes in.
The guide summarises our findings regarding the “university” target group for a potential social marketing campaign, which aim should be to implement the SDGs as a guiding principle in study programmes, highlighting factors such as behavioural objectives, benefits and barriers as well as motivational factors.
I hope that we ourselves, or other researchers, can further develop the guide and enrich it with further evidence from other study programmes, so that it can serve as a theoretical foundation for a social marketing campaign to bring the SDGs closer to people or to universities.

"Our research findings provide an encouraging case that education is a central key to achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda. With the guide for a corresponding social marketing campaign, we want to make our contribution and encourage more universities to integrate the SDGs as an integral part of their study programmes." Prof. Dr Jörg Henseler

This guide is meant as a starting point. Will you continue to research this direction yourself and explore SDG integration at other higher education institutions? Or where is your journey going?

Yes, I definitely want to continue researching in this direction. In fact, the topic of my dissertation was initially not specifically related to sustainability. Thanks to the examination of sustainable development in the context of my first study, I have now redefined my dissertation project once again and would like to use my dissertation project as a whole to examine what the marketing discipline and, in particular, the education of future marketing managers can contribute to achieving our ambitious goal of a sustainable society by 2030.

And finally, a personal question: of course you can't always behave correctly in every situation, but can you give us an example of how your behaviour has changed towards sustainability? Have you become a change agent and were you able to get something going / motivate others?

One respondent I interviewed as part of my study summed it up quite well: assuming you haven't lived a particularly sustainable lifestyle before, changing your behaviour to a more sustainable lifestyle is a bit like signing up for a gym membership. If exercise wasn't exactly part of my agenda before, I might start out highly motivated to go to the gym every day and work out. I might keep this up for a few days or weeks, then be completely exhausted and suddenly fall back into my old pattern and not go at all. Breaking through one's own behavioural patterns is an incredibly lengthy process and, especially in terms of sustainability, it is often necessary to forego one or two conveniences. That's why, for me, small steps are the way to the goal: I've reduced my meat consumption enormously and when I do eat meat, I only buy it directly from the farmer. And for my breakfast egg, I now keep chickens in my garden. In addition to the regional origin of the products, I generally pay more attention when cooking so that I only prepare as much as I can eat, in order to throw away as little as possible. For short distances, I have traded the car for the bicycle or walking. For longer distances, I try to use public transportation where possible, but since I live in a relatively rural area, I can't completely do without the luxury of my own car. Since social sustainability is also an important pillar alongside environmental sustainability, and access to education is even defined as an SDG, I've also become aware that I've been making a teeny-tiny contribution to the topic of sustainability for quite some time now thanks to my volunteer work as a tutor.
It is precisely this diversity of sustainability that I try to illuminate in conversations with those around me. My research and theoretical examination of the topic provide me with more and more arguments and knowledge about sustainability, which I can then discuss with family, friends or colleagues. This is another way to make a contribution by sensitising others to the topic. Particularly in discussions, however, one often becomes aware of the limits of one's own actions. During a vacation in Spain (I can't completely do without flying yet either), I noticed that there is no deposit system for plastic bottles like there is in Germany and that the topic of waste separation is practically non-existent in private households. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about this topic to make a concrete recommendation for action, but even if I had a suggestion, who should I call in the Spanish government? (I'm deliberately exaggerating here, of course.) The next goal I have therefore set myself is to incorporate the topic of sustainability even more strongly into my work environment. I'm already doing this quite consciously as part of my doctorate.
In summary, I would not see myself as a change agent yet. But I am convinced that I am well on the way. With my doctorate, my goal is to go into teaching one day. Until then, I would like to acquire more expertise in the field of sustainability marketing, which I can then pass on to future students and hopefully train them to become change agents for sustainable development.  


*Hübscher, C.; Hensel-Börner, S. und J. Henseler (2021): Social marketing and higher education: partnering to achieve sustainable development goals, in:  Journal of Social Marketing, DOI:


Chiara Hübscher is doing her doctorate on the topic of "Skills Development for 21st Century Marketing: Educating Change Agents for a Sustainable Tomorrow" as part of the Cooperative Doctoral Programme at the HSBA and the University of Twente. She is supervised by Professor Dr. Susanne Hensel-Börner, Head of the MSc Digital Transformation and Sustainability programme at HSBA, and Professor Dr. Jörg Henseler, Chair of Product-Market Relations at the Faculty of Engineering Technology at the University of Twente, Enschede, the Netherlands.



With its Graduate Center, HSBA supports dissertation projects by outstanding graduates at the interface between science and practice. The new doctoral students start at HSBA every winter semester, beginning on 1 October. If you are also interested in a cooperative doctorate at HSBA, please contact us! We are always happy to receive applications. For more information please visit: Doctoral Programmes