When Social Movements Go Off Brand

From Geoff:


I’ve spent a lot of time advocating that a brand is not merely a marketing device. It’s not a spectre that operates in some ancillary business silo. It’s the culture of an organization. It’s the style, temperament, and personality of a collective – whether it’s a social movement or a non-profit.

That is, of course, where the whole idea behind SMM came from in the first place. Building and selling culture is what takes ordinary business-to-consumer relationships to a higher order of collective action.

I was reminded recently, as I stumbled upon I book I read for a college class about America in the 1960’s, what happens when a movement goes “off brand.” That is, when an organization or cause abandons its culture and personality.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), pronounced “snick,” was one of the most influential organizations in the American Civil Rights Movement. Originally, it started as a series of student-led meetings in North Carolina, but soon got the attention of white, liberal students in the Northeast who joined the cause.

SNCC organized “sit-ins,” “freedom rides,” and other protests designed to rebel against segregation in a non-violent way. In addition to their opposition to violence, SNCC has another unique aspect to its culture. Leadership and decision-making were democratic, not top-down. All decisions required consensus and meetings often lasted over 6 hours while everyone voiced their opinions.

It only made sense to founders like Ella Baker that a movement for the people should have an organizational structure owned by the people. It may have been inefficient, but supporters were passionate and it was certainly “on brand.”

However, things changed – Stokely Carmichael became chairman of SNCC. He was closely aligned with the Black Panthers and a major proponent of using violence. Some SNCC leaders supported Carmichael and he was able to push through some violent agendas. As these agendas progressed, Carmichael even changed the name of the organization to remove the word “non-violent” and SNCC became the Student National Coordinating Committee.

As Carmichael took SNCC out of the mainstream movement and into the radical violent one, a major rift developed within SNCC, and not surprisingly, the organizational structure became more top-down and autocratic. Carmichael expelled all white employees and volunteers, many of whom had helped start the movement. By the late 60’s SNCC had become almost entirely ineffective and by the 70’s it was all but extinct.

I think SNCC is a great example to explore because it’s both an organization and a movement. Culture is what binds a movement, and when it’s neglected, the fallout is potent enough to derail an organization with rich history and incredible popularity.

When an organization takes on a strategy that is so radically off-brand that it must change its name and management style, then you can be sure it’s destined to fail, no matter how trendy it is at the time. In many ways, this case exemplifies the power of brand. It must pervade everything from the name of an organization, to the management style, to the very personality of the people. Without that, no one inside or out, will understand where you’re going or where you’re coming from.

For help finding your organization’s personality, click here.

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