I submit to you this idea: Brands are social movements.
Think about it. Is there a better way to describe how the Apple store looks on a Saturday evening? Or the hysteria around America’s Next Top Model?
We live in a movement culture: we define our personas, more than ever before, by the movements we take part in. How green are you? Did you vote for change? Do you eat local? Are you a Mac or a PC? Are you a hipster or did you just stop showering?
The ubiquity of social movements these days is a result of the relative ease with which they’re created. Web 2.0 has democratized social movements (ironically) so what once could only be started with a coup can now be started with a click. And often, brands are right in the middle of it.
It’s old news that consumers don’t just buy products anymore. We know they seek brands with similar value systems and engage in multi-dimensional relationships. But I think brands now extend beyond just helping people express their identities. Rather they function as a way to bring like-minded individuals together and to behave as a collective…much the way social movements work.
It’s therefore not surprising that if you look at the components of a social movement by traditional definitions, the most successful brands in the world account for each one. Take a look:
1. Common Identity: This one is easy. Brands have always been forums for people with similar values. For instance we know BMW drivers value engineering and people who eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream value wearing Tevas year round.
2. Informal: Social movements aren’t formally organized nor are they exclusive since their success hinges upon your involvement in the first place. Brand followers are the same way. They’re simply a group of like-minded individuals with no formal hierarchy (this is arguable – see Amex) and varying degrees of devotion…but their money is accepted nonetheless.
3. Incorporates A Set Of Rituals Or Events: “Love-ins” in the 1960’s, graffiti in Paris in 1968, communist book burning in the 1950’s, Woodstock in 1969. Harley Davidson bike rallies, Saturn homecomings, dipping Oreos before you eat them, going to Disney World after winning the Superbowl, committing a felony at a Raiders game.
4. Hinged On Social Interaction: Certainly social movements only happen when people are brought together. Art and music are central to all movements because they’re the bonding media. Brands aren’t much different. Their bonding media are user generated and distributed via Facebook, Flickr, Youtube, Twitter and others.
5. Set Off By An Emblematic Event: You could argue that Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus was the catalytic event that set off the civil rights movement and that Vietnam did the same for the American youth movement of the 60’s. Brands have these moments of truth too. Did the 1984 spot propel Apple to stardom or was it the release of the ipod? Was it until the Prius that Toyota became an American icon?
6. Unified Voice OF Leadership: Malcom X, John Brown, Bob Marley. Steve Jobs, Tiger Woods, Fred the Baker.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see an agency learn to harness this type of thinking and use it not to fortify consumerism, but to help engage communities for important social initiatives, or to help NPO’s generate awareness and raise funds, or to help companies create cultures of prosperity and loyalty rather than the opposite?