Unless you’ve been on another planet the past few weeks, you already know the story of how Rush Limbaugh uttered some highly provocative remarks about a private citizen and paid for it by hemorrhaging advertisers. More than 50 had defected at last count. Putting aside the political aspects of this story to look at the marketing side of it (I can’t help it, I’m a marketer), I have to wonder: Going forward, how might this affect the way advertisers think about fundamental questions like "What do we stand for?" And "Who do we stand with?"
If brands haven’t fully answered those questions, they’d better. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned in recent months through the Rush incident, the Susan Komen and Bank of America backlashes, etc., it’s that we’re living in an Age of Uprisings. And the uprisings extend beyond politics or social issues, spilling into the world of commerce. Today, if you do something that ticks people off, they’re going to rise up against you.
They have the will and the passion and the social media tools to wreak havoc on your brand or organization. And it may be in response to something you haven’t even done yourself. You may simply be associated, through advertising or some other form of support, with the offending party.
So again, we come back to: How will marketers react to all of this, going forward? In my new book Uprising, I interrogate this new world for marketers. Knowing that the world around has become so volatile, should they respond by becoming more cautious, by trying to stay far way from anything that could ever, in any way, be perceived as controversial?
I worry that some may react that way: The lesson they may take away from this is: Stay away from outspoken people; don’t get involved in any issues; play it safe.
Trouble is, that’s also the quickest way to make a brand invisible and irrelevant. If you play it safe in today’s boisterous marketing environment, well, it’s true that you won’t have crowds rising up against you—they’ll be too busy ignoring you.
That’s why I think marketers will need to do something more counter-intuitive: In these volatile times, brands actually should become more willing to take a stand. They should become more activist, not less. But they should do so in a thoughtful, considered way that is more likely to put them on the same side of passionate issues as their customers are.
A movement strategy starts with figuring out what your brand’s core values are: What are you for? What are you against? Traditionally, marketers have been reluctant to take a stand against anything because it can feel controversial or divisive. But the truth is, some of the boldest marketers have been doing this kind of thing successfully for quite a while (think of Apple, which in its early days came out strongly against conformity and the "Big Brother" world of computing). And today, more than ever, consumers are looking for brands that share their values and outlook. They see those values expressed clearly in brands like, say, IBM (Smarter Planet), Mahindra (Rise), and Zappos. But too many brands don’t seem to stand for anything. And so they end up being defined and judged—and sometimes found guilty—by association.
Adam Morgan, author of Eating the Big Fish said to me: "You could say there are two kinds of challengers / brands who lead (and need) movements. The first are monster-killers. They have identified a 'monster’ that is a threat to their community, and want to unite the community in defeating it. This Monster can range from toxicity (Method) to lazy stubble (Gillette India). Monsters are typically things rather than behaviors. Keys here include giving a name to the Monster, warning the community of the danger it poses, dramatizing the enormous size that it is, and mobilizing the community—often in a grassroots way—against it, with yourself at the center of that mobilization. There is usually a sense of some kind of urgency here.
"The second kind are the Missionaries. Missionaries believe that there is a false 'religion,' an almost pernicious way of thinking in the category that they are looking to put right. The notion that beauty is all about youth, for instance, or that giving children good education or healthy food or shoes on their feet is a right that transcends social status or income. Missionaries have to sell product, but also seek to re-educate along the way; they have a cultural mission as well as a business mission (think of Camper’s invitation for us to join The Walking Society). So in terms of engagement and media they need to find 'pulpits’ which allow longer form explanation of their perspective, and an invitation to come over to their point of view. This is less about urgent timing, and more about a more long term change in one’s perspective on life."
Building on what Morgan says, movements can help marketers overcome the problem of brands not paying enough attention to their customers and what really matters to those people. What are the issues that are on their minds? What are they passionate about? What are they talking to each other about?
In our experience at my agency StrawberryFrog, we’ve found that when brands are willing to take a deep look at themselves—their culture and their values—and, simultaneously, are also inclined to really pay attention to what’s going on in the lives of their core consumers, it can lead to epiphanies. This is what we should be talking about to our customers. This is what we should be helping them do in their lives. When that happens, they begin to have their own clear mission; they don’t need to ride on the back of a Rush Limbaugh. They’re in a position to do more than just run ads; they can launch an initiative, or better yet, a movement.
StrawberryFrog has helped brands to start movements covering a wide range of issues—everything from fighting against big dumb mindless overconsumption (for Smart Car USA) to fighting for creativity (for Mega Bloks and Pritt Glue).
For our client the Mahindra Group, one of the most powerful companies in India, we helped launch a movement whose mission is to inspire everyone to use their ingenuity, to accept no limitations to drive positive change. For other clients, we’ve launched movements that tried to bring about change in schools or encouraged more responsible consumption. And as I worked on my book about brand movements, I encountered everything from a pet food company that launched an animal welfare initiative to a shoemaker that began a worldwide movement to put shoes on poor kids’ feet. In each case, the company helped people to rally around an idea that was important to them, enabling those customers to become activists. In the process, the brand demonstrated that it was engaged in people’s lives, that it cared about something more than just profits.
To really be part of this age of uprising, your brand has to be willing to get out there and mix it up. I’m not talking about spouting words in an ad ("We care about the same things as you!") or even just throwing money at a cause d’jour. I believe brands now must demonstrate their values and beliefs through action. Use your resources to help customers become more active and involved in the issues they care about. Create platforms for them. Help them form communities. Set up events where they can rally behind an idea or principle.
"What uprisings should teach CEOs is to look at the big conversations in the world and ask themselves what do we have to offer. Really standing for something isn’t as simple as writing a check or pulling an ad budget; it has to come from the heart of the company," says Jon Miller, the strateigist who worked with Nike on the Girl’s Effect.
Brands that can do this can actually tap into the passion and volatility of this new era, instead of running from it. The idea is to be more proactive: to take your own stand, instead of letting some talking head (supported by your ad dollars) take a stand that has nothing to do with you. And to be out there marching with people, instead of worrying that someday they might be marching against you.
Having said all this, one last question is worth asking: Should companies, brands, or CEOs, even attempt to spark movements? Aren’t movements and uprisings supposed to be for nobler causes? You wouldn’t expect to see business people and capitalists marching with OWS. But there is a profound need for CEOs and CMOs to learn from uprisings. Here’s what I think. Movements—at least, the kind of movements that gather around positive, creative, dynamic ideas—can help build a better, fairer, more sustainable and more interesting world.
Studying uprising offers also further lessons for CEOs. Why do young people hate corporations so much? Leaders of big organizations think they are doing good for the world. CEOs who can articulate a clear movement idea and a purpose for their company can inspire people to get behind them the way IBM has managed to do with their movement for a Smarter Planet or Dow with Solutionism and Mahindra with Rise.
After studying movements for over 20 years and having sparked a few for iconic clients, I believe brands must connect with that passion and activism somehow. If you fail to respond to this shift in the culture, you run the risk of being out of step with your customers. Your company could end up looking like a "status quo" brand in a revolutionary world.