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How To Transform Your Brand Into A Movement

2014 August 17

Digital technology has changed marketing to such an extent that most brands still struggle to adapt.  What once was a massive land war in which the biggest army had a distinct advantage, has become more like a guerrilla insurgency.  To win now, you have to own the villages.

Pepsi was one of the first major brands to embrace the shift.  In 2010, the company eschewed its traditional Super Bowl TV spots and invested $20 million in Pepsi Refresh, a social platform that awarded grants to good causes.  Its social KPI metrics soared.

Unfortunately, in business terms, the initiative was a massive failure.  Sales dropped by 5% and Pepsi lost market share.  The truth is that simply adding followers on social media is unlikely to create a community of purpose.  To succeed in the social arena, strategies need to be grounded in social dynamics and network science, not conjecture.  Here’s how:

Step 1: Earn Your Mission

Saul Kaplan was obsessed.  A self professed “innovation junkie,” he was intensely interested in how to catalyze transformation in industries and communities.  After more than 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies, however, he found that most efforts to create change in organizations did little more than tweak around the edges.

So when the Governor of Rhode Island asked Saul to be his Director of Economic Development, he saw a chance to put his ideas into action and create innovation at scale.  He formed the Business Innovation Factory (BIF), a non-profit organization, in order to transform Rhode Island—and eventually the entire country—into an innovation platform.

Saul eventually left government to focus on BIF full-time.  It is now a decade old and has become a cult favorite in the innovation world.  It’s where well known innovators, such as Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and author Daniel Pink mix with an eclectic assortment of social entrepreneurs, educators and corporate executives.

One of the reasons that BIF has been so successful is because Saul earned his mission.  He’s lived it and devoted his career to it.  That’s a far cry from dropping a few Super Bowl ads and dispersing some grants.  Pepsi Refresh failed because it had no connection to Pepsi’s corporate mission.  BIF has prospered because it embodies Saul’s.

Step 2: Create Hackable Platforms

Every successful community has a platform.  Harley Davidson has its clubs, the Tea Party has meetings in cafes and other local spots, Apple has Macworld.  These build cohesion by allowing members to connect, share experiences and build ties.  Network science demonstrates that strength of a community is not determined by its size, but by the density of its internal linkages.  You must build in before you can build out.

The BIF community has two fundamental platforms for interaction.  The first are its experience labs, which are real world spaces for developing and testing innovative new models.  The second is the annual BIF Summit, which is a TED-like event where presenters share stories about their passion projects.

Saul emphasizes how important it is to trust the audience and not try to control the message.  He says, “We don’t prescribe what the conversation should be, but catalyze collisions.”  Although there are big name speakers every year, he considers what happens on stage secondary to the conversations that go on at the breaks.

Again, Pepsi Refresh offers an interesting contrast.  The platform was little more than a website and a social media effort.  Participants weren’t empowered to connect and learn from each other—or from Pepsi for that matter.  There was no way to “hack” Refresh.  It was, in effect, a beauty contest for procuring funding.  No wonder it failed.

Step 3: Find A Balance Between Cohesion And Diversity

In 2004, I found myself in Kiev, Ukraine at the center of the Orange Revolution.  What started out as a small group of student activists eventually grew into a vibrant political movement that not only overthrew the political order of the country, but the entire region. The reverberations of those cold November days are still being felt today.

Yet it would never have amounted to much it had not grown beyond that first group of activists.  If they had demanded that everyone who joined them matched their convictions and commitment, it would have faltered.  Instead, the movement cascaded throughout Ukrainian society, gaining steam as it did.  That’s how disruption happens.

In a study of currency traders, researchers at MIT found that the most successful performers worked within a core group, but also diversified their sources of information.  Other studies of star engineers at Bell Labs and of informal company networks found much the same thing.

Every community must find a healthy balance between cohesion and diversity.  Without cohesion, there is no common purpose, but without diversity groupthink will set in and eventually that purpose will lose relevance.  Nothing can grow and remain the same.  It has to change and evolve.

Step 4:  Create Genomes of Shared Values

Our DNA is not a blueprint or a technical specification.  In fact, our genome contains only about 1.5 gigabytes of data, barely enough for a full length movie.  Its genius is that rather than try to specify features of our biology, it provides us with rules for adaptation.  First, for chemical gradients in the womb and later for the outside environment.

Brands that become movements work the same way.  McDonald’s has a great business in India, where beef is taboo and the company must cater to strict vegetarian diets. Cosmopolitan magazine thrives even in Islamic countries, where attitudes toward sex differ markedly from the US.  Yet in both cases, the brands remain faithful to their core values.

Growing beyond your base doesn’t mean you have to lose your soul.  In fact, it means that you have to define your DNA and stay true to it, but remain capable of adapting to changing contexts.  To wit, Saul Kaplan’s BIF has published its genome, but leaves it up to its network of innovators to interpret how to bring it to life.

The secret to growing a movement lies not in abandoning principles, but in defining them at a deep, visceral level.

Step 5: Sustain Passion At Scale

Like Pepsi Refresh, most movements fail.  As political scientist Moisés Naím explained in The Atlantic, even the most passion fueled street protests usually fizzle out.  Others, like the Orange Revolution and the Arab Spring, initially succeed but then falter when the time comes to do the hard work of implementing change.

The truth is that passion, even the most sincere and heartfelt, is difficult to scale.  Startup companies with innovative business models and exciting technology often find that growth kills their business.  Those heady, early days turn out to be not the prologue, but the denouement.  Success, all too often, breeds failure.

In Scaling Up Excellence, Stanford’s Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao argue that much of the problem has to do with Catholic vs. Buddhist approaches.  “Catholic” organizations seek to create a strict doctrine of beliefs and practices.  “Buddhist” ones are more open ended, providing guiding principles, but leaving details open to interpretation.

The Orange Revolution ultimately failed because there was no plan for the future, only a break from the past.  The Tea Party, on the other hand, became so rigid that it lost support. Yet some brands are able to find a happy medium.  McDonald’s and Cosmopolitan magazine are not only cultural icons, but fabulously successful across cultures.

Creating a powerful movement has little to do with fancy social media strategies or even good intentions.  Rather, platforms for change thrive as ecosystems centered around a potent idea.  As Daniel Dennett put it, “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library”

– Greg


An earlier version of this article appeared in Harvard Business Review

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Hayk Antonyan permalink
    July 28, 2015

    Great post; many thanks!

  2. July 28, 2015

    Glad you liked it Hayk!

    – Greg

  3. April 7, 2017

    Hi Greg excellent article, your thoughts have enlightened me on this subject. As I have started to delve more into how brands can implement movements for this new noisy age to differentiate and outlive others. You do show me a human and realistic side of the story. Thanks and hope to hear from you.

  4. April 8, 2017

    That’s great to hear! Thanks Hassan.

    – Greg

  5. April 8, 2017

    Hi Greg, haha you are everywhere on forbes, HBR etc with this movement stuff. What got you started in this?

  6. April 8, 2017

    The Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

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