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The Biggest Winner: Social Movement Media

big-to-small1As further evidence that brands are becoming social movements, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that NBC plans to produce more programming that promotes a specific cause.

Shows like “The Biggest Loser” that espouse social causes have become the lone bright spot in NBC’s otherwise struggling portfolio. Their success is not surprising — there’s high demand for social meaning today, and we’re looking for it in our purchases, our jobs, and now our entertainment.

Our growing fascination with these shows is another indication that social causes now play an important role in the makeup of Americans’ identities. What you believe in is becoming as important as what you drive in terms of showing others who you are, and brands are now trying to foster relationships in that way.

In fact, growing their viewer base was not actually NBC’s primary motive. Instead, they hypothesized that socially-charged programming would help advertisers connect with consumers on a deeper level. Today, media that work to form an emotional bond between brand and consumer (rather than just providing a forum) command higher profit margins and have thus become the Holy Grail of ad sales.

This trend will only make brands look more like social movements, and will put an even higher premium on having intrinsic social meaning for your brand (or at least a social agenda).

This may or may not be good news for nonprofits. Certainly, the growing importance of social issues in our lives is positive, however this also illustrates the encroachment of consumer brands on the business of nonprofits. Companies selling widgets are building brands the way NPO’s ought to be: using causes as a rallying cry for a loyal brand culture. The organizations that actually know how to “do good” need to seize this opportunity.

If NPO’s don’t build strong, movement-like brands, Americans’ awareness and understanding of what they do could become diminished in favor of for-profit models of involvement.

The opportunity may be found in forming partnerships with the media companies. In order for networks like NBC to retain credibility with consumers as their cause-related programming becomes mainstream, they’ll most likely need to partner with nonprofits that already have brand equity with that particular cause. A partnership of this sort entrenches a nonprofit within the program long before any advertisers get involved, plus the media company gets kudos for getting involved with a nonprofit.

This is not a well-written article

sarah-silverman-cc08In the latest episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Bill paid a rather interesting compliment to Sarah Silverman. He said, “you’re amazing because you’re willing to unsettle an audience. Anyone can come out and tell people what they want to hear, but you’re willing to scare them.”

This fact may be one of the secret ingredients to Silverman’s success and it also offers an insight into what motivates people to think and act. One of the theories of humor is that it’s essentially based in incongruity. What makes people laugh is a sudden twist of plot or perspective — something that surprises us. On a bustling street, where everyone is going about their business as usual, when someone slips suddenly, one of our instincts is to laugh (for some, this instinct is stronger than for others). When the punch line is in sharp contrast to the set up – when they are most incongruous – we laugh the hardest.

Beyond humor too, contrast seems to emotionally move humans. We live in a world of symmetry – almost all living organisms are symmetrical, so when we experience incongruity we are startled. It causes us to laugh at jokes, pay attention to art, avoid danger, and gasp when we’re frightened.

It’s not surprising that humor is such a mainstay in advertising. In order to emotionally move someone in 30 seconds or less it takes tremendous incongruity, and humor is the best way of getting at it.

Naturally, I began to wonder what the role of all of this is in social movements and branding.

When I thought of the strongest brands, the ones with the most loyal, passionate followings (the ones that most resemble social movements), it seemed they were all conceived from some form of incongruity or dissonance. Apple of course stands for creativity in a world that was once dominated by beige boxes. Google gave us easily organized information in the wild west that was the internet. Target represented the democratization of design in a mass production economy.

Similarly, social movements are all born from intense dissonance from prevailing social currents. Without the affluence and prosperity of the 1950’s would the Beatniks have been so down-trodden and anti-materialist? Without the growth of the Industrial Revolution, a period of horrible working conditions, would organized labor have become such a force? If college graduates weren’t entering such a bleak economy today would they insist they like the taste of PBR?

The whole point of social movements is that they originate as an opposition – an incongruous alternate to the way the world is. Without representing some sort of a contrast, a brand will just blend into everyday business. So what makes your brand worthy of a movement? What would you say that would unsettle an audience?

Would your husband marry you again?

41CC2BQTQ4L._SL500_AA280_This week’s post was inspired by Dan and Chip Heath’s “Made To Stick” column in this month’s Fast Company. The Heath brothers are calling for “an arms race of goodness — a generation of companies that compete on real emotion rather than stick-on sentiments.”

The column covers an issue in branding that has long been a topic of discontent for me. Creating an emotional bond with customers is not a new idea – Palmolive was doing it in 1921 when they asked housewives “would your husband marry you again?” And yet, for many brands, the approach to creating that bond hasn’t changed in a century.

They’re still trying to attach product attributes to random emotions without any substance behind it. Is there any reason to believe Calvin Klein cologne makes women lose their inhibitions? Is there any reason to believe Citizen watches make you “unstoppable?” Is there any reason to believe Coors Light “tastes colder” and is thus more refreshing than other beers? The answer of course is no – and consumers are paying less and less attention as a result.

“Back in the day,” Palmolive actually struck a chord with women because no other dish soaps were claiming that they softened your hands. But today, in every sector, there’s at least 3 competitors making the same claim. Owning a product attribute is almost impossible now, but that hasn’t stopped marketers from trying.

So how do we create an emotional bond now? How about actually meaning what we say? How about brands walk the walk for once? If you’re the cereal brand that gives kids the energy they need to learn at school then start a campaign for in-school nutrition or to stop the cutting of phys-ed programs. If you’re the jewelry brand that empowers women to take what they want in life, then do a campaign about your program to educate women in developing countries.

To create a social movement around your brand, “meaning it” is critical. We’ve already discussed Gen-Y’s desire to align with brands with built-in social meaning, and as word-of-mouth becomes marketing’s gold standard, only brands that give people something real to talk about will be heard.

Some brands are catching on: Toms Shoes for example has “doing good” built into their business model by donating a pair of shoes to kids in developing countries for every pair they sell. Consumer brands are now encroaching on the business of non-profits in order to foster emotional connections. Conversely, non-profits are “doing good,” but very few of them pay any attention branding. What if brands competed on how much good they do rather than how many GRP’s they run in prime-time?

The article mentions one last critical aspect of social movement marketing. Actually standing for something, makes employees engage with your brand. When you walk the walk, you define a strong, internal culture for your organization, which ultimately and inevitably leads to a strong, customer culture for your brand.

Udorse it, You bought it

apple-tatoo1I’m thrilled to introduce a special guest posting this week from writer and advertising illuminato Terry Selucky. Her work has been featured throughout the NY lit scene, most recently in New York Magazine. Below Terry shares insights into a new social media branding tool called Udorse. It’s a creative attempt to help brands leverage word-of-mouth in creating a movement. It’s a thought-provoking way of putting the onus on consumers to propel your movement.
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In 1994, when NPR’s All Things Considered broadcast an April Fool’s Day segment stating that corporations such as Pepsi, KFC, Apple and Gap would give a lifetime 10% discount to any teenager who would tattoo his or her ear with a corporate logo, droves of young people called in to find out how they could sign up. Those who knew better laughed.

But 15 years after the hoax, as we’re just beginning to settle into the digital age, Udorse.com has created the social media equivalent of a tattooed ear. By tagging certain items on photos throughout personal pages online, an individual can share favorite brands and, when tagging Udorse’s partners, earn money with each Udorsement. The tagger has the option to either donate his or her reward earnings to a favorite charity or have them deposited directly into a PayPal account.

Udorse.com, a company backed by Founders Fund and featured at TechCrunch50, is a direct response to the individual’s increasing desire—and ability—to ignore traditional advertising. DVR has allowed viewers to skip TV spots; pop-up blockers prohibit unwanted messages. Now, more than ever, consumers are filtering through the flotsam to get to products that are useful, sexy and recommended by someone they trust. But will Udorse catch on with advertising-elusive, tech-savvy consumers?

Probably not the way the company envisions, or hopes. Udorse claims to “empower each of us to endorse the items and places in our photos that we want to help support, and share with our friends.” That’s true, and well-spun. And Gen X may try it out, but while many successful brands are proudly touted as part of one’s identity, Gen Y is too skeptical to buy into a program that could so easily be seen as “selling out.”

It’s a logical leap forward in consumer-driven advertising, but it will only survive if people find it useful—or if advertisers find it profitable. Most likely, other companies are going to create better, more palatable versions of the same idea. And in the meantime, finding the function and form of your company remains top priority.

Lights Out Branding

mackerelI stumbled into a brilliant Social Movement Marketing case study at Mashable’s Summer of Social Good Conference last week. Andy Ridley, the executive director of Earth Hour, presented an inspiring case study of the work his organization (WWF) has been doing.

Previously I’ve discussed how successful social movements are able to balance a seemingly contradictory dynamic: They empower individuals by forming one collective identity. Followers of a movement join a group of many to achieve personal betterment; the way mackerel form schools to increase the chances of survival for each individual fish.

Abstruse as this may be, Earth Hour is a perfect example of how to work this balance in the cause world.

Picture 1You may have participated in Earth Hour without even knowing it. In Sydney, Australia in 2007, Earth Hour convinced 2 million people to shut off their lights for an hour at the same time. The stunt has now become an annual global event that, in 2009 saw 4,000 cities and 1 billion people participate. (Watch a great video about it here.)

For one organization to inspire one fifth of the planet to act in unison, they needed for all participants to bear the responsibility of promoting the movement. Earth Hour’s brand, manifested in its culture of joy, communion, and hope, transcends geography, nationality, and class. However, it was Earth Hour’s ability to let people personalize the brand that really generated a movement.

People took those core virtues of joy, communion, and hope and ran with them. Some people organized candlelit beer pong, some organized rock concerts, some hosted dinner parties, some had bon fires, and the ideas went on and on. From Israel to Iowa, people took ownership of the movement, but everything remained in the context of the culture of Earth Hour.

However, we must recognize that this wasn’t the luck of the draw. Earth Hour set out to encourage people to personalize the brand or movement. They offered access to download any of the promotional creative work to use as templates, created a forum for people to share materials they had created on their own, and made available all of the social networking tools necessary for people to take the reins of the movement.

Brands must offer both the collective identity and the personal reason to believe. Earth Hour mastered both and changed the world, at least for 60 minutes. As the media landscape changes to favor individuals, relinquishing brand ownership to the people will inevitably be necessary…all we can do now is set the context.

Fiesta Time!

FordFiestaMovementIt’s nice to see the theory of Social Movement Marketing get some national exposure…too bad it had to come from the Ford Motor Co. Though Ford (and GM for that matter) have consistently botched their attempts to sell cars that American youths relate to, Ford has nailed it this time…at least from a marketing standpoint.

To market their new Fiesta model, a sub-compact for urban youths, Ford is running a campaign called the Ford Fiesta Movement. Sound familiar? Rather than spending $30 million dollars cramming TV spots into NFL games, which they usually do, Ford recruited 100 “agents” to spend 6 months with the car and to use social media to tell EVERYONE about it.

These Fiesta agents get a free car, free insurance, free gas, and national exposure for 6 months. Each of the 100 agents embodies what the Fiesta brand wants to be: Young, urban, artsy, funky, curious, active, and most importantly, savvy in social media. In return for living the Fiesta life for half a year, these agents are charged with essentially tweeting this car into pop-culture lore.

The Fiesta movement’s website aggregates all of the agents’ tweets, pics, flics, vids, blogs, nings, and any other contemporary monosyllabic networking tool into one, well organized place where you can learn everything you need to know about the Ford Fiesta culture.

Perhaps most surprising is that Ford was able to resist making the campaign egregiously self-serving. Understanding that product information doesn’t start social movements, Ford gave the agents specific missions to accomplish (with their Fiesta at their side) that focus on community service, activism, and culture. They’re using these 100 agents to be the poster children for an aspirational urban identity, of which the Fiesta is a small but necessary part.

This is, of course, fundamentally how social movements work. They define a vivid collective identity (active, multi cultural, urban youths), empower charismatic leaders (the agents), and spread influence through stories (missions) and word-of-mouth (social media).

Traditionally, social movements have relied on word-of-mouth because buying TV spots was far too expensive. Now, thanks to social media, word-of-mouth has become what TV used to be: the most influential means of communication, and marketers are looking to own that too.

Consumer brands may put together impressive campaigns like the Fiesta movement, but they can’t own it – nonprofits have an equal opportunity to push influence in social media. A nonprofit could easily find young activists (start with your volunteers) to be agents for a cause. For example, put 50 young, multi-ethnic, urbanites on the street with a cheap video camera, have them film discriminations they come across in daily life, put it in an online documentary, promote it on Twitter, and you’ll get more national attention than 6-months worth of highway billboards would get you.

For help with your social media strategy call BRANDEMiX.

Sell the culture not the cause

storyIn consumer marketing there’s a term called “selling the category.” For example, if your company sells spray-tan and you run an ad that says “look like George Hamilton all year,” you would be selling the category – you’re only convincing consumers of their need to buy spray-tan in general, but not your particular brand. Unless you’re the market-share leader, selling the category is not a good practice because it benefits the competition as much (or more) as it benefits you.

I’m adapting the term for the nonprofit world: selling the cause. A lot of nonprofits do this. They convince people of the general importance of a cause, but say nothing specific about their organization to position it as the solution. However noble it may be, this doesn’t help your organization build “market share” or brand equity.

It’s becoming increasingly important to avoid just selling the cause. There are more organizations than ever – 60% of nonprofits are less than 30 years old. In every single cause category the competition is getting steeper for increasingly fewer available dollars. Chances are, your nonprofit is not the biggest in the category, in which case you have to make a case for yourself not your cause.

That’s where brand comes in.

Just as consumers buy brands for the culture not just the product, people join social movements for the culture not just the cause. Whether it’s the hipster movement of the 60’s or today’s straight-edge movement, they all have a distinct culture in addition to a specific social or political agenda, because it’s that which magnetically attracts followers. The cause provides all of the tangible reasons to join a movement, but the culture provides the ultimate emotional impetus to act.

The same goes for nonprofits. They’re all based on fighting for a cause, but the ones with the most culture have the strongest brands, which is manifested in more donations, volunteers, and more loyal employees.

NPR has done a great job of building a magnetic culture. They’ve built a steady, unapologetic culture of highly educated people who value long-style, in-depth reporting and they’ve sold this culture through social media. They stopped asking for money “because public radio is important” and started defining a movement of young, thought-leaders who are growing up to discover that they’re dissatisfied with the state of journalism today.

With social media as pervasive as it is today, communications is now actually the easy part. The hard part is defining a culture that’s unique and making a dedication to selling it rather than the cause.

For help defining your culture, call BRANDEMiX.