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Igniting Movements Around a Social Heartbeat

  |  March 20, 2012   |  Comments

Social movements have huge implications on brands – and many have started to get involved. Here's how.

People are social by nature and we have been this way for a long time. Social media merely provides the tool to amplify the way we communicate. The Roman Forum was one of the first social networks in history. Without technology that we know of today, the Romans had a slave stay in the Forum 24 hours a day to take down and distribute messages between citizens. Like Facebook but with real and actual wall posts. So it's not what we have done that has changed but rather the scale in which we do it.

A study was done by The New York Times on "The Psychology of Sharing" and more specifically "Why do people share online?" It found that sharing was not new but very much part of human nature. However, in the age of social media, people now share more content, from more sources, with more people, more often, and more quickly. In the study, it was found that 68 percent share to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about (to define themselves to others) and 73 percent of the respondents shared information because it helps them connect with others who share their interest (and thereby help them grow and nourish their relationships). Moving higher up the hierarchy of needs, there's also the need for self-fulfillment (69 percent share because it allows them to feel more involved in the world) and to get the word out about causes or brands (84 percent share as a way to support causes or issues they care about).

In the fight for consumer attention, most brands understand that in order to be successful and cut through the clutter, they need to stand for something. People are constantly searching for higher meaning and purpose in life and brands that are able to mirror these beliefs in the way they act will be the ones that will gain momentum, brand consideration, and advocacy.

People band together for a variety of reasons. It might be to share an interest and love for something - products, brands, or sports. Or perhaps there is an uncanny similarity in the way they think and react to something they share a strong belief in or an emotional bond to. With the democratization of media consumption and creation, this has lead to larger amounts of transparency; in terms of the ability to find information, discuss, and debate about issues with others that they never could before. This phenomenon has begun to change the social-economic and political landscape around the world.

A social movement forms when a large informal group of individuals come together to carry out, resist, or undo a social or political change. Culturally, this has manifested itself tremendously over the past year. The Arab Spring (which forced a power shift in various middle eastern countries), Occupy Wall Street, and the recent anti-SOPA/PIPA movements are all great examples of social movements that involved shared techniques of civil resistance in sustained campaigns involving strikes, demonstrations, marches, and rallies and the use of social media to organize, communicate, and raise awareness for these events.

Within Asia, HK's recent protest against luxury goods retailer D&G sparked by a photo ban as well as Singapore with its National Cook Curry Day are all examples of how social movements already exist within the fabric of our culture. China has its own unique brand of Internet vigilantism that revolves around the principles of social movements called the Human Flesh Search Engine.

Social movements are created in three stages:

1. Motivation: When groups of people experience a structural strain from the deprivation of something that they share a strong unified belief in or an emotional attachment to.

2. Agitation: When a solution to the problem they are experiencing is proposed and spreads; often acting as a catalyst that brings more like-minded individuals into the group and turning it into a movement.

3. Explosion: This is the tipping point or the actual organizing and active component of the movement, often at a community-based or national level where people come together to do what needs to be done.

Social movements have huge implications on brands and many have started getting involved in them; weaving altruism and corporate social responsibility as part of their brand objectives.

Commercial examples include the Pepsi Refresh Project, Toms Shoes, and even the non-profit UNICEF Tap project.


In one of the most recent political movements of all times, U.S. President Barack Obama inspired hundreds of thousands of people to volunteer their time and money in a political movement to get him elected as president.

Closer to home, some brand-driven social movements include the Never Chicken Out campaign by Burger King in Singapore where the brand got people to come together to stand up for themselves against bullying or unfair behavior.
Another great example is the Shave India: Women against Lazy Stubble (WALS) movement by P&G Gillette to get lazy Indian men to shave their unseemly stubble.

So how do brands go about creating movements?

A movement is emotional, not rational, and can only start when you get people to believe in something. Using the same framework above, the motivation phase should begin with the brand as a catalyst. The brand needs to present a unique point of view that people can subscribe to. This could be in the form of an issue or problem that is seeded into the ecosystem where people can discuss and debate about.

In the agitation phase, the brand then steps in with a solution that is intertwined with the brand belief on how they (the brand or product) can help make peoples' lives better. Finally, in the explosion stage, the objective is to ignite mass participation of the movement that culminates at a community or national stage in the form of an event.

Movements are less about a campaign and more about a sustainable and long-term commitment that will benefit your consumers as much as it will your business.

"Great leaders create movements by empowering their tribe to communicate. They establish the foundation for people to make connections, as opposed to commanding people to follow them." - Seth Godin


Vincent Teo

Vincent is the co-founder and partner at C//IQUE, a product development studio and incubator that focuses on developing digital products and services that disrupt traditional business models and empower consumers. He has over a decade of experience both on the client and agency side, most recently as a digital planning director at BBDO/Proximity and lead digital strategist at Publicis. Prior to that, he started-up and managed the Hong Kong office of Splash Interactive Group and built the online business at Citibank and HSBC. Connect with him on Twitter @intersphere.

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