Purpose – Social marketing scholars have posited that influencing policy makers, regulators, managers and educators can help address societal problems “upstream”. Applying “upstream social marketing”, these groups can be treated as target audiences, and through use of marketing techniques, advocacy, stakeholder engagement, and informing evidence based policy making, their behaviour can be influenced to engender pro-social outcomes, for example through policy change. However, examples and guidance on how upstream social marketing can be effectively employed to successfully alter the structural environment is lacking. This article aims to unlock the potential of upstream social marketing by examining how it can be systematically employed.Design/methodology/approach – The article examines the development of the upstream social marketing concept in the extant literature, and presents some guiding principles, before analysing the case study of minimum unit pricing of alcohol in Scotland. The failure to comprehensively employ upstream social marketing in this case is compared with the successful use of upstream social marketing in tobacco control.Findings – The article suggests that heretofore, upstream social marketing has not always been systematically applied using social marketing principles. Guidance on upstream social marketing is presented, and thoughts on the trajectory of the concept for the future are offered.Originality/value – The paper identifies guidelines for unlocking the potential of upstream social marketing, and suggests areas in which future research and writings are required to help develop the concept.