How Social Movements Change Minds

Marketers tend to like big, bold actions that grab attention and spew off metrics. Yet all too often, we ignore the much more mundane work that comes before. To market a product or an idea, you have to change minds, and that takes time and a lot of careful work.

That’s a lesson we’ve seen over and over in the social movements of the last century—although the outside observer may only notice the movement when the dominoes start falling, the people inside the movement worked tirelessly for months, years, or even decades, to change minds.

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

First, successful movements start by attacking perceptions. For instance, at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, many people thought of it as a “black problem” or a “southern problem” or even a states rights issue.  However, a large part of the success of the movement was getting people to see that it was a fundamental problem of national identity.

Consider the March on Washington in the summer of 1963. That was when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. It designed to appeal to mainstream America. King’s invoked the Declaration of Independence, speaking not just to the problems of African Americans, but also to the founding principles of the republic. Even people who hadn’t experienced oppression had internalized the ideas embedded in that document.

Cognitive psychologists call this framing and it plays into how our brains work. We are not, as many would have us believe, rational calculators. We see things in the context of connections that already exist in our minds.

Framing and reframing is also something that successful marketers must also know how to do. When Helen Gurley Brown took over Cosmopolitan magazine, she transformed it from a guide for housewives to an icon of independence.  Steve Jobs, when he returned to Apple, shifted the Macintosh from a standalone computer to a hub for devices.

Second, successful movements build connections through personal contact, rather than trying to burst on the scene all at once. This point is especially salient today, when modern day movements like those that resulted in rights for the LGBT community or in taking down the Confederate flag seem to explode onto the public consciousness as a result of a single event or court case. It’s easy for marketers looking to emulate their success to take note of the end game while ignoring the opening moves.

To return to our historical example, although the March on Washington is probably the most famous event of the Civil Rights Movement, its success built on years of effort. It was the culmination of hundreds of smaller events—sit-ins, boycotts and protests—staged by groups in cities and towns throughout the south.

More recent movements, such as Otpor in Serbia, have taken a similar approach, focusing on growing organically through attraction. Contrast that with the Occupy Movement, which quickly spread from its origins on Wall Street, but then died out almost as fast. Although much of its rhetoric about inequality still resonates, the movement itself is long gone. While there were many reasons for its failure, a big one is that it didn’t do the hard work of building connections both inside and outside the movement, and therefore lacked the mechanisms of governance needed to fulfill a specified purpose.

That brings us to the third essential attribute of successful movements: they connect to the mainstream.

This makes all the difference. While it may be more comfortable to cater to passionate enthusiasts, unless you can appeal to the mainstream, you won’t get very far. After all, while the Civil Rights Movement called for change, it was leaders outside it, like Lyndon Johnson, that codified that change with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Civil Rights protesters were careful to attract mainstream support even as they defied authority. They showed up well dressed, spoke to police and other authority figures respectfully, and eschewed violence.  That’s what allowed those outside the movement to identify with and admire them. For instance, as John Lewis describes in Walking With The Wind, a few months before the march, Robert Kennedy turned to him and said: “The people, the young people of the SNCC, have educated me. You have changed me. Now I understand.” Movements gain traction when they attract new members.

Similarly, as Byron Sharp argues in How Brands Grow, the only way to build a successful brand is to reach new customers. While many marketers find comfort in catering to loyal customers, that will almost surely lead to irrelevance. Research shows that bigger brands tend to have higher loyalty rates anyway. Far too often, brands strive to be “edgy” in order to differentiate themselves, but end up alienating far more than they inspire.  That may fire up the loyal base, but it limits the potential for growth.

Successful brands, like successful social movements, are about 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 them. Its determination to create a better world necessitated a commitment to nonviolence. That same commitment to nonviolence inspired supporters and diminished opponents.  Its mission drove its strategy, not the other way around. Today we remember the movement for what it built, not for what it set out to destroy.

Great brands operate the same way. Rather than relying on empty slogans and artful positioning, great brands, like great movements, aspire not merely to sell more stuff, but to create a positive impact on the world.

https://hbr.org/2015/07/how-social-movements-change-minds

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