The Five Ps of Activist Marketing

Why are activists such great marketers? We “real” marketers have billions of dollars. They have pennies. Yet activists always seem to get the sky-high return on investment (ROI) when trying to get a message across.

Every time an activist trumps, co-opts, or outmaneuvers the “system,” I get a weird, insecure feeling, as if I were a marketing phony.

This unshakable imposter complex traces back to Spring 1986, when I was attending the University of California at Santa Cruz. The university was considering divesting holdings from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. The student activists humbled me with intuitive, savvy marketing tactics that would make most Madison Avenue creatives salivate.

Sure, they used some predictable tactics, such as striking emotional chords with motivational poetry, and taking over the school library and renaming it the Nelson Mandela Library. But they went beyond that. The activists ingeniously (albeit illegally) transformed the campus email infrastructure into a “wired” global protest network of over 200 universities. They had e-newsletters, online mailing lists, and more — nearly a decade before Andreesen cranked out the first Mosaic browser.

A bunch of indignant, inventive rule-breakers made this “in the system” student-government type feel phony. They also won my deep respect with the tangible, measurable results they achieved. (The UC Regents voted for divestment only three months later.)

Ironically, I’ve since acquired an ostensibly respectable marketing pedigree from both Harvard Business School and Procter & Gamble. I’m supposed to really know my stuff. Yet I often wonder whether my marketing achievements owe more to those divestment activists than to seasoned soap marketers.

The Five Ps

What drives great activism? What can we learn from it? I put that question to an AdRants/Soflow discussion forum and was blown away by the level of spirited, engaged response.

After reading all the feedback, I did what all respectable marketers would do: I created a Michael Porter-style consulting framework known as the Five Ps. These are the five adjectives that describe great activist marketing:

  • Pure. There’s an unmistakable purity to the activists’ cause. We all know the ugly side of it, the extremism. But the softer side of purity drives trust, credibility, and believability. Marketers, in contrast, are chock-full of disclaimers. There’s always an exception or something in fine print. We proclaim we’re transparent, but we’re not. We list ingredients in hard-to-find places, hide the contact form, place asterisks on the tough issues, and “borrow equity” from others to make our big points.

    Not so with activists. We may not agree with them. We may even have reason to despise them. But we always know where they stand, whether they’re antiabortion crusaders, antiglobalization rabble-rousers, or “take no hostage” PETA members.

  • Passionate. Passion sells. It sells because it’s usually genuine. Last January, I heard über-blogmeister Robert Scoble say the two core drivers of the blogging revolution are passion and authority. Jackie Huba of Creating Customer Evangelists said, “Activist marketers are often terrific at getting passionate believers to spread the word and recruit new believers.” Consumer-generated media (CGM) is such a big deal today because average consumers wrap technology-fortified passion and authority around their experiences.
  • Prophetic. What I truly admired about the divestment activists is they really believed the university would divest. Effective activists stick to their vision and help others to see it and believe in it. We often can barely seeing beyond the next ROI analysis, and we still can’t articulate a post-TV vision.
  • Poor. No question, when cash is short our minds work harder and faster. Street-smart instincts fire up. Activists have no choice but to be flexible, creative, agile, iterative, and highly experimental. Much as I love to curse my company’s board for slashing my marketing budget after the dot-com crash, I’ve definitely been more resourceful and creative with my precious dollars. You can’t starve a marketing budget in perpetuity, but belt tightening does force creativity.
  • Paranoid. I don’t mean this pejoratively (after all, high-tech god Andrew Grove dedicated a book to this word). But let’s face it, activists have an “us versus them” mentality, often for good reason. I know this firsthand. Every day, I wake up paranoid some large advertising or research behemoth will steal all the great CGM frameworks and concepts I’ve created over the years. Paranoia keeps me on guard, fiercely competitive, and five steps ahead.

Final Lessons

Activism clearly has its dark side: extremism. Marketers trying to imitate activists often look like shills or fools. But there’s much to gain by observing activists’ resource-constrained tactics, especially when we’re all under pressure to do more with less. Today’s consumers are starting to look and behave more like activists, too, and that can’t be ignored. We can’t complain about it, either, because we’re the ones who educated them about the Web and armed them with blogs and other strong-result CGM tools.

Putting on my own activist hat, I must admit it feels really good to seize power. Last week, in less than two hours, I created my own pseudo-activist blog entitled dedicated to saving our local community pool. The site cost me all of 10 bucks for the domain name. It features comments from neighbors, streaming video testimonials, photo sharing, donate-now buttons, meeting notes, and a blog. is tame compared to what’s about to unfold before our eyes.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.