How to Turn Your Brand Into a Social Crusade

Today, successful brands create social movements around themselves: the key proposition is not 'buy me' but rather, 'join me.' That is particularly crucial in highly competitive and commoditized markets where performance is just the price of admission and customers increasingly make decisions based on emotional factors. Winning brands excite customers to care about them in non-rational ways, based on how the brand makes them feel and how it syncs with their personal values. So, how do you turn your brand into a rallying cry, and more importantly, what do you do when your potential customers are indifferent or simply don't care about you? It's the marketing challenge of our times.

It's well understood that we live in the era of the empowered consumer. As the thinking goes, with all the information in the world at their fingertips, better-informed consumers can now make much smarter, more discerning buying decisions. The premise: offer a well-priced, superior product or service and consumers will eventually sort through the data, figure that out and prefer you. But, it's a false premise. In reality, today's consumers are more often overwhelmed by too much information and too many choices, and information overload usually results in analysis paralysis. In other words, when in doubt consumers opt out.

Moreover, particularly in the tech world I come from, many companies (especially B2B) sell with cold logic while customers at even the highest corporate levels buy with emotion--usually fear or ambition (remember the old saw, "no one ever got fired buying IBM?").

However, what truly is empowering about these times is that consumers have access to what really moves them: social proof. Yes, as it has always been, consumers look around at others for their buying cues. Real user ratings and P2P recommendations are powerful influences, and so are valued associations (celebrities for example) and expert or curated endorsements. In an age of abundant information, consumers don't trust themselves and don't want to be the one dummy who bought wrong. Yet another recent study found that 80% of US online adults credit communication with people they know personally for helping them discover new brands, products, or services. Of those, 94% actually purchased or tried a new brand or product after hearing about it from a friend.

This dynamic continues to frustrate marketers because it means traditional mass media "carpet-bombing" methods don't work anymore. Spending a ton of resources in a mass attempt to shape individual choice is usually a waste of money today. What most marketers haven't come to grips with in the post-mass media age is that memes are nearly impossible to start, but movements are easier than ever. That's because social media is the perfect tool to scale a few diehard believers into a mass action. The real goal of marketing now is to spark a movement that snowballs a few true believers into millions of vocal devotees. For this, marketers need to borrow heavily from a new inspiration: the political uprising.

Mobile, always-on, user-generated social platforms are a social revolutionary's wet dream. One can only imagine what Mao or Che would have done with Instagram or Twitter. Social and political movements grow when regular people evangelize a cause to others. Thanks to the high adoption rates of social channels, grassroots movements are relatively cheap and easy to launch - but the triggers must be powerful ideas delivered by true believers in well-structured narratives.

Here are a few drills I run brands through:

Polarize the market: Force people to take sides. The best brands do not try to be everything to everybody--they courageously stand for something unique and occupy a distinct market position by turning off some in order to gain many others. So-called "high dispersion" brands cultivate a rabid consumer fan base precisely because they also have haters. Rather than placate detractors, provoke them. Haters serve a great purpose when they make your fans even more entrenched and more likely to come to your defense in social media settings. Starbucks is a good example of a polarizing brand. People either love them or hate them. Do they drive some to patronize a Caribou and Peets? Sure. But these days communities around the world consider it a badge of honor when a Starbucks opens up on one (or several) of their corners. Don't be afraid to piss some people off if you want a loyal love base.

Foment dissent. There's a political construct called the Davies' J-Curve of Rising Expectations that helps predict revolutions. When the trajectory of rising expectations of a populous exceeds reality by just enough, people will spill out onto the streets in rebellion. Similarly, you can upset an entrenched market or unseat the incumbent leader by relentlessly raising consumer expectations of something better thereby stirring general dissatisfaction. People don't know what they want until you tell them they aren't getting it. It is usually not about features and benefits - competitors will quickly catch up on those - it's about a different world view and better way of doing things. In early 2014 Jeff Bezos got the world and Wall Street buzzing about his "delivery drone" idea. Suddenly it became a canon of online retailing that overnight delivery is just too slow and this plays well into Amazon's coming strategies for same day delivery services (granted, via more conventional means). The vehicles for fomenting dissent are industry speeches, press interviews, 'leaked' development plans, manifestos, and white papers.

Create public 'rallies.' Nothing excites a throng like being part of a collective happening. Crowds are good. Crowds draw crowds. It's the most primal form of social proof--people voting with their feet. I have created quite a hubbub at massive, noisy events like CES simply by visibly staging a nerd-magnet like Marvel legend Stan Lee in my booth and allowing the photo opp line go on for miles through the hall. Crowds produce a visceral effect you feel in the gut. Apple stores get a lot of love for their innovative design and layout, but the biggest advantage is they are compact, open, visible from outside the store and they always seem crowded. And what better show of devotion than a camped-out line forming around the block for days before a new iPhone release? Foster more public assemblies so people see for themselves that it's cool to join your movement.

Overthrow somebody. Many markets have a tyrant - the complacent market leader milking the last vestiges of the status quo thereby slowing sector innovation and industry progress. For challenger brands it is immensely useful to position the competitive battle as a moral clash against an anti-hero. This anti-establishment position lets you quickly build a solid little army of malcontents, refuseniks, and complainers in a pitched resistance front against Big Leader. As much as it promotes the inherent economic and environmental benefits of solar energy, Solar City in California probably sells more home energy units based on universal consumer hate for soulless utility monopoly Pacific Gas & Electric. To many of their customers, the prospect of flipping the bird to PG&E may be more satisfying than lower energy bills.

Appeal to what people really care about. At a tech conference I recently hosted in Silicon Valley, Twitter founder Biz Stone told the audience that "the future of marketing is philanthropy." Stone went on to explain why he believes connecting with consumers' true passions at a deeper level is the next big thing for all businesses in our socially-networked age. "Young people are attracted to meaning. People want to work at a company that they know also has some sort of cause associated with it -- like a double bottom line. Consumers want to buy products and use services from companies with a double bottom line. Young people want to make a difference." Unless you're in the business of feeding the hungry, curing the sick or freeing the enslaved, your product or service won't on its own have a moral imperative worthy of a crusade. But you can triangulate to connect with customers' true passions. Companies like Toms shoes, eyewear maker Warby Parker and Boxed Water turn every purchase into something more profound. For example, if you sell bikes, odds are good that your customers are natural fans of the planet -- a good place from which to build a brand movement.