How Social Movements Change Mindsets


Marketers tend to like big, bold actions that grab attention and drive action. Yet too often we ignore the much more mundane work that precedes it. Getting a product or idea to market requires changing your mind, and that takes time and a lot of painstaking work.

It’s a lesson we’ve seen time and time again in the social movements of the last century – although the outside observer only notices the movement when the dominoes start falling, the people inside the movement have worked tirelessly for months, years, even decades, to change your mind.

The story arc East long – the length of a career rather than a marketing campaign. And yet, despite the differences, there are several lessons marketers can learn from successful social movements.

First, successful moves begin by attacking perceptions. For example, in the early days of the civil rights movement, many people viewed it as a “black issue” or a “southern issue” or even a states rights issue. However, a large part of the movement’s success has been in making people realize that this is a fundamental issue of national identity.

Take into account March on Washington in the summer of 1963. It was then that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historical Speech “I have a dream”. It was designed to appeal to the general American public. King’s invoked the Declaration of Independence, evoking not only the problems of African Americans, but also the founding principles of the republic. Even people who had not experienced oppression had internalized the ideas contained in this document.

Cognitive psychologists call this management and this plays on the functioning of our brain. We are not, as many would have us believe, rational calculators. We see things in connection context that already exist in our minds.

Framing and cropping is also something that successful marketers must also know how to do. When Helen Gurley Brown resumed Cosmopolitan magazine, she transformed it from a guide for housewives into an icon of independence. Steve Jobsupon his return to Apple, transformed the Macintosh from a standalone computer to a hub for devices.

Second, successful moves build connections through personal contact, rather than trying to burst onto the scene all at once. This point is particularly salient today, when modern movements like those that resulted in rights for the LGBT community or the removal of the Confederate flag seem to explode into public consciousness following a single event or judicial affair. It’s easy for marketers looking to emulate their success to take note of the endgame while ignoring the opening moves.

To return to our historical example, although the March on Washington was probably the most famous event of the civil rights movement, its success was built on years of effort. It was the culmination of hundreds of smaller events – sit-ins, boycotts and demonstrations – organized by groups in southern towns and villages.

More recent movements, such as Otpor in Serbia, took a similar approach, focusing on organic growth through attraction. Compare this with the Occupy movement, which spread rapidly from its origins on Wall Street, but then died out almost as quickly. While much of his rhetoric about inequality still resonates, the movement itself is long gone. Although there are many reasons for his failure, the main one is that he did not do the hard work to build connections inside and outside the movement, and therefore lacked the governance mechanisms necessary to achieve a specific objective.

This brings us to the third essential attribute of successful movements: they connect to the general public.

That makes all the difference. While it may be more comfortable to appeal to enthusiasts, unless you can appeal to the general public, you won’t get very far. After all, while the civil rights movement called for change, it was outside leaders like Lyndon Johnson who codified that change with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Civil rights protesters were careful to attract mainstream support even as they challenged authority. They showed up well dressed, spoke respectfully to police and other authority figures, and avoided violence. This is what allowed those who were outside the movement to identify with them and admire them. For example, as described by John Lewis in walk with the wind, a few months before the march, Robert Kennedy turned to him and said: “The people, the young people of the SNCC, educated me. You changed me. Now I get it.” Movements gain momentum as they attract new members.

Likewise, as Byron Sharp argue in How brands grow, the only way to build a successful brand is to reach new customers. While many marketers find solace in restoring loyal customers, it will almost certainly lead to irrelevance. Research shows that big brands tend to have higher loyalty rates anyway. All too often, brands strive to be “cutting edge” to differentiate themselves, but end up alienating far more than they inspire. This can boost the loyal base, but it limits the potential for growth.

Successful brands, like successful social movements, are aspirations, and aspirations are always about a better future. They seek to include, not exclude.

Probably the most important thing brands can learn from the civil rights movement is that it not only clearly defined its mission and values, but was in turn defined by their. His determination to create a better world required a commitment to nonviolence. This same commitment to nonviolence has inspired supporters and diminished opponents. His the mission piloted its strategy, and not the reverse. Today we remember the movement for what it built, not what it set out to destroy.

Major brands work the same way. Rather than relying on hollow slogans and clever positioning, big brands, like big movements, aspire to not just sell more stuff, but create a positive impact on the world.


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