Lights Out Branding

I stumbled into a brilliant Social Movement Marketing case study at Mashable’s Summer of Social Good Conference last week. Andy Ridley, the executive director of Earth Hour, presented an inspiring case study of the work his organization (WWF) has been doing.

Previously I’ve discussed how successful social movements are able to balance a seemingly contradictory dynamic: They empower individuals by forming one collective identity. Followers of a movement join a group of many to achieve personal betterment; the way mackerel form schools to increase the chances of survival for each individual fish.

Abstruse as this may be, Earth Hour is a perfect example of how to work this balance in the cause world.

You may have participated in Earth Hour without even knowing it. In Sydney, Australia in 2007, Earth Hour convinced 2 million people to shut off their lights for an hour at the same time. The stunt has now become an annual global event that, in 2009 saw 4,000 cities and 1 billion people participate. (Watch a great video about it here.)

For one organization to inspire one fifth of the planet to act in unison, they needed for all participants to bear the responsibility of promoting the movement. Earth Hour’s brand, manifested in its culture of joy, communion, and hope, transcends geography, nationality, and class. However, it was Earth Hour’s ability to let people personalize the brand that really generated a movement.

People took those core virtues of joy, communion, and hope and ran with them. Some people organized candlelit beer pong, some organized rock concerts, some hosted dinner parties, some had bon fires, and the ideas went on and on. From Israel to Iowa, people took ownership of the movement, but everything remained in the context of the culture of Earth Hour.

However, we must recognize that this wasn’t the luck of the draw. Earth Hour set out to encourage people to personalize the brand or movement. They offered access to download any of the promotional creative work to use as templates, created a forum for people to share materials they had created on their own, and made available all of the social networking tools necessary for people to the reins of the movement.

Brands must offer both the collective identity and the personal reason to believe. Earth Hour mastered both and changed the world, at least for 60 minutes. As the media landscape changes to favor individuals, relinquishing brand ownership to the people will inevitably be necessary…all we can do now is set the context.

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