Tag Archives: social movements

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.


Personify or perish

At the end of my last post, I casually threw out the idea that people relate to people not organizations, and accordingly, organizations must take on a personality of their own or risk being perceived as ordinary.

But why is this the case?

Because personification is how humans go about understanding inanimate objects. We tend to personify things that we feel the need to have an emotional bond with. We name our cars, think of our boats as women, and treat our pets like children.

My mother used to guilt me into wearing certain sweaters when I was a kid by telling me they felt sad because “they never get to be worn like the other ones.”

We also personify what we don’t fully understand as a way to be rational about things that scare us. We name hurricanes and atomic bombs. We take abstracts like God, death, and the devil and anthropomorphize them into concepts that we can deal with like the grim reaper and Mephistopheles.

You’ll notice that when we lend human personality traits to objects we are celebrating their individuality, uniqueness, and importance. By naming your convertible and talking about it like it’s a woman, you are establishing that it’s different than all other cars on the road and that it’s of emotional importance to you. Conversely, when we want to dehumanize someone, we treat them like objects and strip them of their individuality and importance. Essentially, we un-personify them. Racists dehumanize people by saying “they all look the same” and sexists treat women like objects.

Companies build brands with human characteristics to help us find a way to relate to their products and to differentiate from the competition – essentially celebrating their corporate individuality.
NPO’s and causes don’t sell products to which we can assign human traits, so what to do? We can sell the culture the way social movements do.

The paradoxical brilliance of social movements is that they’re able to build strong, unified cultures by encouraging individuality. Freedom of expression solidifies culture not the opposite. Aside from the traditional channels of expression for social movements like language, art, and press, web 2.0 has given us the “golden opportunity” to put the onus on all organization members to lead conversations and energize the cause. All members should be encouraged to contribute to blogs, share videos, and tweet about the cause…and it must unfiltered and authentic. Encourage self-expression through any and every channel.

Let your people build the organization’s personality for you. Without it, you’ll just be another inanimate object.

– For more information on building your internal culture visit BRANDEMiX.
– To join a free webinar on communicating the personality of your brand RSVP to webinar@brandemix.com

What’s the story with your mission?

081005171231-240-124You may have seen this photograph before…it’s one of the most famous of the 20th Century and certainly of the Vietnam War. Aside from sheer terror captured by the photographer (Nick Ut), it’s the story behind the photo that propelled this image to infamy.

The naked, screaming girl is Phan Thị Kim Phúc. American and South Vietnamese pilots had just finished bombing her town and had mistaken her and her fellow citizens fleeing the city for soldiers, and attacked. She ran crying down the street as napalm scorched the skin on her back. This story became a lynchpin of the anti war and anti napalm movements in America.

Stories have always been critical to the success of social movements. They’ve been used to incite action by exposing injustice the way Rodney King’s story was used to provoke riots in LA and eventually became a symbol of the bubbling tension between the distressed black community and white law enforcement. And they’ve been used like fables to articulate the moral framework of a movement, the best example of which is religion, which in my mind is the most successful social movement in history.

In fact, religion is essentially organized storytelling from which we draw moral and personal conclusions. The bible is an anthology of these stories. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine said “a movement is a bundle of stories…a group with a shared narrative is more likely to mobilize it’s members.” Religion’s, and especially Christianity’s, ability to mobilize its members has hinged on a very familiar schema for storytelling: “I once was lost and now I’m found.” This formula has been efficacious in its ability to draft follower’s because it promises transformation if you join its collective identity.

What’s your organization’s collective identity? What does it promise? What are the stories that define your cause? Do they just highlight the importance of your work or do they have a moral framework? Are they capable of mobilizing people?

Consumer brands have very sophisticated stories. Apple established a narrative condemning the drab and oppressive PC establishment while mobilizing their forces to fight for creativity starting with the 1984 spot and continuing today in the Mac vs PC spots. Stories of Harley Davidson’s popularity with the Hell’s Angels have given the brand an enduring culture of rebellion.

What’s interesting to me about the stories that consumer brands tell is that almost all of them are completely made up – fabricated by genius spin doctors at ad agencies. Whereas NPO’s and causes have real stories to tell, many basing their very existence on the founder’s personal quest. However, due to the inequities of the media market, we hear so few of them.

One of the ways NPO’s do attempt to tell their stories is by utilizing the ubiquitous and oft-insipid mission statement. These statements are too often stripped of the real storytelling elements and exist only as a regrettable corporate necessity. It’s too often an opportunity missed.

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to tell your story. Getting an audience on the Internet is not a monumental feat (the fact that you’re reading this is a testimonial to that.) We have a forum for accessing the population so it’s now about understanding how to use this medium for effective storytelling. So I pose the question: what are the best practices for storytelling via web 2.0?

In my next post I will dissect the traditional elements of storytelling and explore their applications in the web 2.0 world. In the meantime, check out BRANDEMiX.

What would your janitor say?

In the midst of the space race in the 1960’s, president Kennedy was given a tour of the NASA facilities. Along the way he encountered a janitor and asked the man, “what do you do here?” The man replied without hesitation: “I’m putting a man on the moon.”

The beauty of this story is not merely in the unity-of-purpose that NASA exhibited, but also in the clarity and simplicity of that purpose. The objective “put a man on the moon” was so beautifully unambiguous that even the janitor could connect with it and articulate it, despite the fact that the objective its self was thought to be absurdly lofty at the time.

When the objective of an organization is conveyed with that kind of concreteness and certitude, the members of that organization are instantly empowered. Each individual suddenly knows exactly how to do his/her part in accomplishing the end goal, and the mission becomes a rallying cry rather than a verbose corporate header. 

Social movements are powered by the same principle. The more concrete the objective, the more passionate the following. “Bring our boys home.” “Overthrow the Ch’ing and restore the Ming.” “Legalize gay marriage.” “Bring back Family Guy.” All of these goals are cut-and-dry. Success is yes or no, not shades of gray. As a result, these movements have all amassed large, highly engaged followings. Oh and most importantly…they all accomplished their goals (or are on the brink). 

Companies have started to use this kind of thinking to align their employees around their brand. They’ve found that the best way to create a cult following of customers is to create a cult following of employees.

Movements don’t have customers…effectively everyone is an employee. So if you want to turn your cause into a movement, start with the people who are already in your organization. Presumably, they’ve chosen their job because they inherently care about the cause, but are they doing a job or are they putting a man on the moon? Once you build that culture of change, the movement will start growing organically as employees become recruiters and advocates.

Being concrete and vivid when expressing your raison d’etre is only part of the equation, the rest of which I will address in subsequent posts. For a head start in galvanizing your organization from within, check out BRANDEMiX.