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Social Uprisings Could Change How Advertisers Connect to Consumers

Brands should take a stand on issues that customers are passionate about

Published: Jun 25, 2013 07:15:35 AM IST
Updated: Jun 27, 2013 11:56:59 AM IST
Social Uprisings Could Change How Advertisers Connect to Consumers
Scott Goodson says consumers today are looking for brands that share their values

Unless you’ve been on another planet the past few weeks, you know the story of how a new battery-powered car, the Mahindra Reva e2o, sparked some pretty tough questions from Indians (see disclosure below). Looking at the marketing side of the story, I have to wonder: Going forward, how might this affect the way advertisers think about fundamental questions like ‘What do we stand for?’ and ‘Who do we stand with?’

If brands have not answered these questions, they’d better. Because if there is anything we’ve learnt in recent months, it’s that we’re living in an ‘Age of Uprisings’. And the uprisings extend beyond social issues, spilling into the world of commerce. Today, if you do something that ticks people off, they’re going to rise against you. Likewise, if you stand for a big idea that people care about, they are going to stand with you.

They have the will, passion and social media tools to create passionate fans, or wreak havoc on your brand. And it may be in response to something you haven’t even done yourself; you may simply be associated, through advertising or other form of support.

In my new book Uprising, I interrogate this new world for marketers. I worry that some may react to it by staying away from outspoken people, not getting involved in any issues, playing it safe. Trouble is, that is also the quickest way to become invisible and irrelevant. If you play it safe, it is true you won’t have crowds rising against you; they will be too busy ignoring you.

I think brands should become more willing to take a stand. But they should do so in a thoughtful, considered way that is more likely to put them on the same side as their customers. Case in point is the movement against lazy stubble (Gillette India). If you look at it there was a sense of some kind of urgency; of fighting something bigger in society that isn’t quite right.

A movement strategy starts with figuring out what your brand’s core values are: What are you for? What are you against? Traditionally, marketers are reluctant to take a stand against anything because it can feel controversial or divisive. But some of the boldest marketers have been doing it successfully for quite a while (Apple, in its early days, came out strongly against conformity and the ‘Big Brother’ world of computing).

Today consumers are looking for brands that share their values and outlook. They see those values expressed in brands like, say, IBM (Smarter Planet) and Zappos. But too many brands don’t seem to stand for anything, and end up being judged.

Another kind of movement brand is the ‘missionary brand’, as Adam Morgan, author of Eating the Big Fish, calls them. “Missionary brands,” says Morgan “believe that there is a false ‘religion’, an almost pernicious way of thinking in the category that they are looking to put right… Missionaries have to sell a product, but also seek to re-educate along the way… This is less about urgent timing, and more about a more long term change in one’s perspective on life.”

At my agency StrawberryFrog, we’ve found that when brands are willing to take a look at their own culture and values, and are inclined to pay attention to what’s going on in the lives of their core consumers, it can lead to epiphanies. This is what we should be talking about to our customers.

When that happens, brands begin to have their own clear mission. They’re in a position to do more than just run ads; they can launch an initiative, or better yet, a movement. Movements can help marketers overcome the problem of brands not paying attention to their customers.

StrawberryFrog believes in helping brands start movements covering a wide range of issues—from fighting mindless consumption (for Smart Car USA) to fighting for creativity (for Mega Bloks and Pritt Glue). I encountered everything from a pet food company that launched an animal welfare initiative to a shoemaker who began a worldwide movement to put shoes on poor kids’ feet. In each case, the company helped people rally around an idea that was important to them. In the process, the brand demonstrated it was engaged in people’s lives, and cared about something more than profits.

Raj Kamble, my partner and head of StrawberryFrog India, says: “What uprisings should teach CEOs is to look at the big conversations in the world and ask themselves ‘What do we have to offer?’ Really standing for something isn’t as simple as writing a cheque or pulling an ad budget.”

To really be part of this age of uprising, your brand has to be willing to get out there and mix it up. I’m not talking about spouting words in an ad or even throwing money at a cause d’jour. I believe brands must demonstrate their values through action.  

One question is worth asking: Should companies, brands or CEOs even attempt to spark movements? Aren’t movements and uprisings supposed to be for nobler causes? They don’t need to be. Some movements simply inspire mass engagement by brands that align with big ideas in culture, are cool or just plain inspiring.

There is a profound need for CEOs and CMOs to learn from uprisings. Here’s what I think: Movements—the kind that gather around positive, creative, dynamic ideas—can help build a better, fairer, more sustainable and more interesting world. Brands that can do this can actually tap into the passion and volatility of this new era, instead of running from it.

After studying movements for more than 25 years, and having sparked a few for iconic clients, I believe brands must connect with that passion and activism. If you fail to respond, you run the risk of being out of step with your customers. Your company could end up looking like a ‘status quo’ brand in a revolutionary world.

(The author is founder and global chairman of StrawberryFrog. Some of the examples come from working with his clients)

(This story appears in the 28 June, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)