Tag Archives: brand

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.

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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?

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.

Activate your bandits

artest_peta_adIngrid Newkirk, president of PETA, said, “thinkers may prepare revolutions, but bandits must carry them out.” Her speech is often dripping with social movement metaphors – she clearly recognizes the importance of turning boardroom theory into action.

Since your brand is the personality of your organization, it’s that which is responsible for inspiring action. It cannot be merely an intellectual endeavor; it must be able to move people on the ground level.

For consumer brands, this simply means convincing people to buy products, but the cause world is more difficult. Indulgence is an easier sell than benevolence. Inherently, a non-profit’s ultimate goal is to start a social movement: getting people to come together to fight for a cause. But more often it’s the consumer brands that have defined cultures.

Which is easier to describe: a Harley owner or a YMCA volunteer? Is there a reason one has to be more distinct than the other?

Ingrid Newkirk would say no. In fact she’s built a powerful non-profit brand, rife with personality and culture. Whether you support their tactics or not, you could describe a PETA activist to a “t”… it probably involves a can of paint.

PETA has achieved social movement status (2 million members) because its brand incorporates all the critical aspects of social movements as discussed in my first post:

1. A common identity: It’s not merely belief in a common cause (that there are no dominant species) that brings PETA members together, but more so that they share core values or personality traits: veganism, extremism, and risk taking.

2. Rituals or codes: PETA members rally around a very clear credo of behavior: “direct action.” Defining a code of behavior is a natural way to build a culture around a cause, which social movements have used forever (for example see nonviolent resistance).

3. Social interaction: PETA has always forced word-of-mouth through controversial action. This ad is a perfect example.
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Finding celebrities to support a cause is on every non-profit’s agenda, but PETA gets them naked. That is to say, they stay true to their brand, and infuse their ads with controversy. If a given celebrity won’t take the risk, then he/she wouldn’t fit the brand anyway.

PETA takes controversy to an extreme, but without a strong opinion people will have no reason to talk about your organization. Newkirk also said, “we’re the biggest group because we succeed in getting attention.” PETA didn’t start as the only animal cruelty group and they’re not the only one now, but they succeed to a higher degree because they create word-of-mouth. They use celebrities for good (Pam Anderson) and bad (Michael Vick) to force themselves into everyday culture.

4. Emblematic event: PETA emerged on the national scene in 1981 when they had a scientist arrested for experimenting on monkeys in a lab in Silver Spring, MD. The controversy ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court where an amendment to the animal welfare act was made. It was then that PETA’s culture of national attention and dedication to “direct action” were conceived.

5. Voice of leadership: Clearly Newkirk has worked hard to perpetuate the culture that has made PETA such a success.

If you can piece these elements together you stand an excellent chance of creating a brand that can truly move people on the ground level. For help taking your brand out of the boardroom and into the streets check out BRANDEMiX.

What’s in it for me?

37406361_a1604773a0In my last post, I lamented the fact that too many brands (and non-profits in particular) communicate in such a way that forces people to think analytically. Logic does not tell someone to become a brand evangelist. Logic does not tell someone to open his or her wallet and hand out money for nothing in return. However, emotion does … in particular self-interest.

In the consumer world, smart branding is when you can escape the urge to pontificate about as many product attributes as you can conjure, and instead highlight the emotional benefit of the total package. In other words, people don’t buy drill bits, they buy holes from which they can hang pictures of their family. People don’t buy lawn mowers, they buy a lawn that makes their egomaniacal neighbor jealous. Advertisers are extremely adept at activating consumers’ self-interest on an emotional level.

What I find fascinating about social movements is that they’re essentially a group of people acting in concert with one collective identity who, at the same time, are motivated by self-interest and are bent on expressing their individuality. They force group action by telling stories that move people on a personal level (like the story of Rokia in the previous post).

Non-profits and causes, in theory, are built on selflessness so triggering self-interest feels incongruous. However, rationally we all know that giving money is far from being a purely altruistic endeavor. People still want their name on the library and daddy still wants little Larry to get into school. Would Paul Allen have donated $1 billion if Bill Gates hadn’t done it first? Self-interest will always play a role in giving so we might as well understand how to leverage it.

The good news is that self-interest doesn’t have to imply materialism or narcissism. Social movements promise the benefit of enjoying meaningful change in one’s life or the euphoria of joining a group of like-minded people. For donors, self-interest could mean assuagement of guilt, self-actualization, transcendence, and many other things. You’re not selling the importance of fighting alcoholism – you’re selling heroism. You’re not selling the importance of reducing homelessness – you’re selling peace of mind.

One great case study on leveraging self-interest for a public cause is the “Don’t mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign created by Dan Syrek. He determined that the typical litterer in Texas was a truck-driving, rifle-wielding, beer-drinking, young male (as if there’s any other kind). Guilt, shame, or fear was clearly not going to be enough motivation. The ads he created featured Texas icons, like football player Too Tall Jones, crushing a soda can and saying “don’t mess with Texas.” It implied that real Texas men don’t litter, and anyone who does, is instantly an enemy of the state, and if you’ve ever been to a Cowboys game you’d know that this is not acceptable. Syrek was able to appeal to self-interest through identity … which is exactly how social movements work.

One last example. Consider this ad that was designed to get young people to vote.

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It makes a personal appeal, and it’s certainly emotional, but where’s the appeal to self-interest? What does this have to do with the collective identity of young men and women? What’s the benefit of not silencing yourself? This ought to be spelled out.

What if the ad said something like “Are you still letting your parents make decisions for you? That’s what you’re doing if you don’t vote.” What if it was a picture of a 45-year old man in a suit and said “would you normally let this man tell you what to do everyday? That’s what you’re doing if you don’t vote.” Young people are very individualistic and rebellious, so theoretically they should care deeply about having others make decisions for them.

For help creating ads like these, contact BRANDEMiX.

Activate Their Little Devil

red-devil-bigThe super-ego is the part of our psychological makeup that’s responsible for making you behave in a socially acceptable manor. While your id plays the role of the devil on your shoulder, begging you to do whatever your little heart desires, your superego works to override those urges. It keeps you from acting on impulse. It’s the part of your brain that says “no” when your id tells you to burp in a nice restaurant.

Unfortunately, the superego is also the enemy to those of us in the marketing profession. Giving people all the logical reasons to do something, regardless of how poignant they may be, will only engage the part of our brains that works to PREVENT action.

In the consumer world, creating an emotional urge to buy is the gold standard. If consumers were analytical we wouldn’t have terms like “retail therapy” and no one would drive a Scion.

Social movements don’t develop because people start balancing the pros and cons of revolting against an injustice. Movements are described with words like “fever” and “momentum.” They’re collective emotional outbursts not premeditated events.

Furthermore, it’s been proven that people are more likely to donate money (and more of it) when they’re in an emotional state of mind. There’s a great case study on the subject as described in the book Made To Stick written by Chip and Dan Heath.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon conducted a test in which they sent out two versions of a donation request letter to a pool of respondents. The first version of the letter showcased statistics about problems facing children in Africa similar to: “more than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.” The second version of the letter focused on one young girl. “Any money you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year old girl from Mali. She is desperately poor and faces the threat of severe hunger.”

The people who got the letter about Rokia donated twice as much money as those who received the other letter did. It’s been well documented that people identify more with an individual than an indeterminate problem, but what’s particularly interesting about this case is what the researchers did next. They tested a third letter that combined the statistics AND the personal story and found that the letter about just Rokia still outperformed the combined letter by a factor of 2.

The researchers theorized that when people are fed statistics they are put in an analytical state of mind and are thus less likely to act emotionally. So they conducted the study once again. This time, they primed the respondents to think analytically before reading the letter by asking them to do math problems. And amazingly, the average gift of those who read the Rokia letter was cut in half!

People who think analytically are dramatically less likely to chip in than those who are emotionally activated. And yet we still see so many communications that force people into that kind of thinking.

People don’t respond to abstract, they respond to people. That’s why social movements work. That’s why we hate dealing with employees who act like robots. It’s always tempting to build a case based on all the “right reasons” that people should donate, volunteer, or contribute in some way, but we must put those aside to appeal to the real reason they do. Empathy is an emotion all humans share – It’s just a matter of finding it more often.

For help activating people’s emotional side contact BRANDEMiX.

When movements go off-brand

lyon-1963-420-1I’ve spent a lot of time advocating that a brand is not merely a marketing device. It’s not a spectre that operates in some ancillary business silo. It’s the culture of an organization. It’s the style, temperament, and personality of a collective – whether it’s a social movement or a non-profit.

That is, of course, where the whole idea behind SMM came from in the first place. Building and selling culture is what takes ordinary business-to-consumer relationships to a higher order of collective action.

I was reminded recently, as I stumbled upon a book I read for a college class about America in the 1960’s, what happens when a movement goes “off brand.” That is, when an organization or cause abandons its culture and personality.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), pronounced “snick,” was one of the most influential organizations in the American Civil Rights Movement. Originally, it started as a series of student-led meetings in North Carolina, but soon got the attention of white, liberal students in the Northeast who joined the cause.

SNCC organized “sit-ins,” “freedom rides,” and other protests designed to rebel against segregation in a non-violent way. In addition to their opposition to violence, SNCC had another unique aspect to its culture. Leadership and decision-making were democratic, not top-down. All decisions required consensus and meetings often lasted over 6 hours while everyone voiced their opinions.

It only made sense to founders like Ella Baker that a movement for the people should have an organizational structure owned by the people. It may have been inefficient, but supporters were passionate and it was certainly “on brand.”

However, things changed – Stokely Carmichael became chairman of SNCC. He was closely aligned with the Black Panthers and a major proponent of using violence. Some SNCC leaders supported Carmichael and he was able to push through some violent agendas. As these agendas progressed, Carmichael even changed the name of the organization to remove the word “non-violent” and SNCC became the Student National Coordinating Committee.

As Carmichael took SNCC out of the mainstream movement and into the radical violent one, a major rift developed within SNCC, and not surprisingly, the organizational structure became more top-down and autocratic. Carmichael expelled all white employees and volunteers, many of whom had helped start the movement. By the late 60’s SNCC had become almost entirely ineffective and by the 70’s it was all but extinct.

I think SNCC is a great example to explore because it’s both an organization and a movement. Culture is what binds a movement, and when it’s neglected, the fallout is potent enough to derail an organization with rich history and incredible popularity.

When an organization takes on a strategy that is so radically off-brand that it must change its name and management style, then you can be sure it’s destined to fail, no matter how trendy it is at the time. In many ways, this case exemplifies the power of brand. It must pervade everything from the name of an organization, to the management style, to the very personality of the people. Without that, no one inside or out, will understand where you’re going or where you’re coming from.

For help finding your organization’s personality, click here.