Can Marketing Learn from Tahrir Square?

When you think of ad agencies, cultural movements and social uprisings probably don’t come to mind. But Scott Goodson, founder of “cultural movement agency” StrawberryFrog and author of new book “Uprising,” wants to change that. Goodson took time with Digiday to talk about the key principles of movement marketing, social activism in the age of social media, and why it’s easy for brands and marketers to find something to stand up against.

Why are you so interested in movements?
I became converted to movements in the Swedish advertising industry back in the 1980s. Back then in Sweden, advertising was illegal on television and radio, and brand marketers did not want to build brands that sold you. They felt this was too harsh. They built a brand with a philosophy at the center. As I describe in my new book, those brands were built with values, a purpose and a point of view of the world that made you and the brand happier every time you got together. Brands like IKEA were not for the rich but for the wise. Volvo had a philosophy of safety and wellness. One brand that I launched, one of the world’s largest Pharmaceutical companies called Pharmacia, sparked a movement “To Life” and was the first global medicine maker to commit to improving the quality of people’s lives. This was revolutionary stuff. Only a brand with a strong point of view can develop this kind of work. As the advertising industry has become fragmented and as technology has taken over, movements based on a strong point of view have become in vogue. Now there is a movement for movements. Because movements are the new marketing model.

You cite Volkswagen’s groundbreaking 1956 “Think Small” campaign as the quintessential example of how advertising can act as important and honest cultural commentary and incite cultural change. Have there been any campaigns in the last decade that even come close to having that kind of potency?
In “Uprising,” I looked at over 50 different examples of modern-day movements by brands. Many of them in the last few years. It struck me as I was writing the book that VW was the first brand to spark a movement based on a point of view. When I lived in Sweden, it was the campaign that was most often presented as the gold standard of advertising campaigns. Then it was Nike. Then it was Apple. These brands have fueled a new generation of thinking. Now you have Dove’s “Real Beauty,” Camper’s “The Walking Society,” Levi’s “Go Forth,” Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” and a movement we recently sparked for Jim Beam called “Bold Choice.”

What are the biggest mistakes that marketers/brands could risk making when it comes to movement marketing?
Today if you do something that ticks people off, they’re going to rise up against you. They have the will, the passion and the social media tools to wreak havoc on your brand or organization — even in instances where you’re only guilty by association. I think it’s logical to assume that the lesson some companies will take away from episodes such as the Susan G Komen or Lowe’s Home Improvement 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, maybe you can avoid having crowds target you — but that’s only because they’ll be too busy ignoring you. I believe marketers 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 must do so in a thoughtful, considerate way that is likely to put them on the same side of passionate issues as their customers.

Traditionally, marketers have been reluctant to take a stand for or against much of anything that doesn’t have to do with talking up their own products. But today, more than ever, consumers are looking for brands that share their values and outlook; they’re judging you by what you do, not just what you say. At the same time, companies must become better attuned to what really matters to their customers — and I’m not talking about “whiter whites” but real-life issues. What are the concerns that are on their minds? What are they passionate about? What are they talking to each other about?

Do you think social media has watered down social/political activism?
No, on the contrary. Social media fuels mass movements, both social and marketing ones. It has made movements explode and enabled them to resist the controls of the established power structures. Social media has helped movements become a mass global activity and given the power to the people. Now you don’t need a pitchfork or a gun, all you need is the new Nokia Lumia. Movements need to be sparked with an idea on the rise in culture. Then social media tools can be used to spread this idea to a wider audience. In some societies, this was done by word of mouth. Now mobile social media-enabled phones makes it easier. Marketers and entrepreneurs can learn from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Social media is mobile today. Most people access their social media via mobile, not desktop. This was the most interesting thing as I was writing “Uprising”: the incredible power of social media. The biggest surprise was events happening all around the world seemed to be echoing the themes in the book. There were “uprisings” happening everywhere from the Middle East to my own town, in Manhattan. And while most of these were social movements, not marketing movements, they reinforced much of what I’ve always believed and known about movements in general. There’s a lot that marketers can learn from the events going on all around us today.

In “Uprising,” you cover how it is easier for a marketer to get behind a movement that is against something rather than one that is for something? Why do you think that is? Why do we love to hate?
People love to hate, and they love to love. Some brands feel more in one camp than the other. Brands that take a stand against something need wit and creative excellence or they feel contrived. Movements can be against something, and they can also be for something. We sparked a movement for Smart Car called “Against Dumb” because in our anthropological research, we saw that few people could relate to the smart car in the U.S., so the top of the funnel was too small. We flipped the brand purpose on its head and declared a movement against big mindless over-consumption and excess. Thousands joined in and sales turned north 171 percent per month. Method is “Against Dirty” and Diesel Jeans is against living like a lemming.

How can marketers/brands find movements that are right for them? Where do they even start looking?
We’re living in an Age of Uprisings. Around the world, people are rising up against governments; consumers are taking on big business and huge organizations (Bank of America and Susan G Komen); and even brands are getting in on the action, mobilizing passionate advocates behind an idea or cause like IBM’s Smarter Planet, Mahindra’s RISE or Dow’s Solutionism. Because of social media, movements can grow and spread like wildfire these days. But how do you start one? Having launched quite a few of them for my clients and studied dozens of others for my book “Uprising,” I’ve found that a movement can be started by almost anyone. But several key steps are required. Movements are fueled by passion, and they usually start with someone taking a strong position on something that’s happening in the culture right now. It could be global or local, but it should be based on an “idea on the rise”—a trend or new development that’s just bubbling to the surface. Income disparity is growing. Dogs aren’t getting a fair shake. People are yakking too much on cell phones. Identify something that you — and by the looks of it, many others — feel strongly about. Even big companies can take a stand against something if they have the guts. We encouraged Smart Car to launch a movement against rampant over-consumption. Whatever the issue, you can be “pro” or “con” — but nowhere in between.

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