How brands can harness social movements (without just jumping on the bandwagon)

By Chip Walker, Head of Strategy at StrawberryFrog and co-author of Activate Brand Purpose.

Connecting with people emotionally is the holy grail in marketing, and it’s one of the challenges I find clients complain most about.

The million-dollar question is – how do you find that emotional connection? I’ve seen marketers sometimes go to absurd lengths to do so, from hypnotizing consumers in qualitative research to literally giving brain scans. And still, too often they end up with a functional, rational brand strategies that leave people indifferent.

Over the years I’ve found that one of the surest ways to connect emotionally is by employing the concepts strategies behind successful social movements, something I refer to as Movement Thinking.

Today, movements are more powerful than ever. Fueled by social media, movements like #BLM and #MeToo are turbo-charged, emotionally galvanizing millions of people of all ages to take a stand and demand change.

While not always defined in such terms, movements have been a part of market­ing for several years, though they have tended to be the exception instead of the rule. When VW launched its ‘Think Small’ campaign in the 1960s, it was aligning with the counterculture of the time. Later, Dove took on women’s self-esteem with its campaign for ‘real beauty’. More recently my agency, StrawberryFrog, launched the Smart Car with a movement against overconsumption called ‘Against Dumb’, which we’ll detail more below.

To better understand what Movement Thinking is and how to apply it, it’s helpful to understand the core Building Blocks of a movement:

1 Dissatisfaction:

What’s your brand’s dissatisfaction in the world? All movements start with a grievance, a wrong that urgently needs to be made right. For the Smart Car’s ‘Against Dumb’ movement, the dissatisfaction was the fact that there was too much overconsumption and waste in the world, especially big, unnecessary cars, minivans, and SUVs.

2 Desired change:

What’s the change your brand wants to see in the world? What do you want to see made different in the future? In the Smart Car example, it was a desire to restore the urban landscape to a more pristine state.

3 Nemesis:

What’s your brand against? You need to identify an enemy and pick a fight. In the case of Smart Car, the enemy was stupidly overconsuming, which we shorthanded as ‘dumb’. (There’s one caveat when identifying the enemy: don’t simply be against your competition. You may hate your competitor’s guts, but nobody else cares; the outside world will be more interested if you take on something more meaningful.)

4 Stand:

What will you stand for in the quest to overcome your nemesis and achieve the desired change? In the case of Smart Car, it was a stand for a more conscious form of consuming, which we shorthanded as ‘smart’.

5 Action:

What will you do to get people to care and participate? This is often a form of communication or expression, as many  ovements first get traction via strong symbols (eg pink ribbon, yellow bracelet), posters, ads, or even a song (eg ‘We Shall Overcome’).

It’s important to also point out what Movement Thinking for brands isn’t. It is NOT about taking up causes or doing social activism for the sake of social activism. A recent example is Gillette’s ad campaign taking on ‘toxic masculinity’, which seemed to come out of the blue and registered accusations of ‘purpose washing’.

The good news is that, framed properly, Movement Thinking can lead your brand to find an authentic, realistic and meaningful ‘wrong that needs to be made right’ in the world, one that will attract devoted followers, not just buyers.

In a world of cynical consumers, brands need emotional connection more than ever, and Movement Thinking is the surest route to get there.

That is why my partner Scott Goodson and I wrote our new book, Activate Brand Purpose. Movement Thinking gets you out of the rationality of your product category and gets you thinking about bigger issues and challenges in the world. Recalling our example of the Smart Car, there might have been compelling evidence that it was more fuel-efficient, but it was rejecting overconsumption that resulted in a last­ing emotional connection.

Movement Thinking evokes a sense of passion and urgency because it asks people to align with a cause they actually care about, a change they want to see occur. It has the power to make higher purpose no only actionable, but done right, to do so in a way that makes an authentic connection with people.

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