Tag Archives: social movements

Create Ambiguity, Not Certainty

Geoff Writes:
rosa_parksMy last post, regarding using stories to inspire movements by creating dissonance in people’s minds, created a lot of commentary.

Here’s what I’ve heard:

“How exactly do you create the uncertainty that makes for a provocative moral? Why does uncertainty make people act? Perhaps this can work for a social movement, but not for an organization.”

I think it’s time for a case study.

There is one story, which is credited for starting a social movement that every American knows. It’s the story of an innocent seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama who was too tired to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger and was consequently arrested. Rosa Parks’ story inspired the black citizens of Montgomery to boycott the bus system, which went out of business within a year, and ultimately compelled the Supreme Court to rule that segregated busing was illegal.

This story became a rallying cry of the civil rights movement and still permeates our culture to this day as a symbol of the effect one, ordinary person can have on society. However, the story, as it is recounted, is not entirely true. Rosa Parks was no innocent victim or ordinary person. She was in fact a long time activist and NAACP member, and her refusal to get up had nothing to do with tired feet. It was completely premeditated by her and the NAACP leadership that put her up to it. They had planned to use Claudette Colvin as the poster child for this event, but abandoned it when she became pregnant.

Why pick Rosa Parks? She was the perfect fit for the lead role in this story. A middle-aged, married, church-going, black woman would create just the right dissonance – the quintessential ordinary person acting extraordinarily.

This event and the subsequent movement it inspired, was staged by an organization. It was not the impulsive, unbridled movement as it’s framed to be (nor are many other movements). I therefore believe the argument that organizations are incapable of producing movements akin to those of organic origins does not hold water. It’s just a matter of how the story is framed.

So why did the NAACP need Rosa Parks? Why did the story have to be about an ordinary person rather than a known hero? Because it was necessary to create the uncertainty (dissonance) required to make others act.

Stories, used properly, raise more questions than they answer. Who is this Rosa Parks? What made this ordinary woman act so out of character? Am I capable of that? What’s going on in Alabama that’s making ordinary people riot? Is there something I should be doing?

If Martin Luther King Jr. had been on that bus no one would have been surprised. It would have been completely rational. When people use their rational brains they’re less likely to act. If you activate their “reptilian brain” or their emotional brain, they move. The same principle is applied to war propaganda. If you tell a story that gets people thinking rationally about the realities of war are they likely to hop into a trench?

Lastly, the NAACP needed Rosa Parks because people don’t respond to organizations…they respond to people. Companies and organizations are undefined and soulless…at least until they take on a personality of their own (read: brand).

Give your organization personality. Are you raising questions or just providing answers? Don’t be afraid to create uncertainty. If people are going to connect with your cause they must see the dissonance between the world as they see it and the injustice that you’re fighting, rather than an abstract “we’re fighting obesity” type of statement.

For help framing your story go to BRANDEMiX. To join a free webinar on communicating the personality of your organization please RSVP to webinar@brandemix.com.

Is Your Story The Same Old Story?

red_riding_hoodIn my last post, I began to discuss the importance of storytelling in turning a cause into a social movement. Movements use stories to instigate action, not just attention. So how can we use stories to transform passive donors into engaged activists? There’s a formula. This is part 1.

The 4 basic components of a story are: a setting, characters, a plot, and a moral. The setting and characters are supposed to be familiar to us – we should be able to relate to them. We know what a dark and stormy night looks like and we know how an aging but wily detective acts. Conversely, the plot is supposed to shock us. An unfamiliar conflict arises in a familiar setting. Aliens invade earth, an enormous shark attacks a placid beach, a wolf eats your grandmother. These are the stories we remember.

Here’s the point: The greater the dissonance between the familiar setting and the surprising plot, the greater the impact of the moral.

That’s why we’re fascinated by stories of “normal” people acting extraordinarily. That’s why we love books like “Chicken Soup For The Soul” and why we can’t stop watching movies like “Alive.” We can truly identify with the “everyman” characters in these stories but are shocked by their actions.

We are biologically designed to be this way. Our brain uses our 5 senses to constantly survey the landscape, pick up on patterns, and use them to anticipate what will happen next in order to keep us out of danger. It’s when this “guessing machine” is broken that all sorts of alarms go off in your body – i.e. adrenaline. Have you ever asked someone what happens next in a horror movie? Humans don’t like uncertainty and that’s what makes us take action.

This is of course how advertising works. In a 30 second story they create a familiar backdrop and then throw in something utterly out of the ordinary. A linebacker suddenly tackles your co-worker or a car suddenly totals your VW.

One of the best recent examples of this principle of dissonance being applied to cause marketing is the Truth campaign aimed at lessening teen use of cigarettes. The agency that created the campaign, CP+B, first determined a fundamental trait that all teens relate to: rebellion against authority. Coincidentally, being iconoclastic is a main cause of smoking in the first place so they knew any ad that preached the negative consequences of smoking, no matter how gruesome or evocative, would be dismissed like every other admonition coming from elders.

Instead, they used that trait to provoke ire for a different authority figure: big tobacco. Each TV spot would start the way typical cigarette ads would – cowboys on a cattle ranch or skydivers getting ready for a rush (the familiar setting). Except, instead of skydivers or cowboys there were body bags (the dissonance). The ads summoned a familiar emotion and then broke teens’ guessing machines. 66% of teens who were exposed to these ads were more likely to quit – a shocking success.

There are two components to applying this to your own causes.

1. You must find that critical insight – the human truth that links the followers of your cause. It may be a need for rebellion or it could be a feeling of duty to protect animals, but this insight must be unique to your constituency. This is, in effect, your brand.

The best way to uncover this insight is to do some qualitative research. Figure out what emotions people associate with your cause. Figure out what similarities your employees share. Or hire reserach experts like BRANDEMiX 😉

2. Once the insight is determined, figuring out how to frame your story becomes very clear. You must create uncertainty in the world and let people figure out how best to resolve it. Those that are affected will join your cause.

Check back next week for part of 2 of using stories to inspire action.

What’s The Story With Your Mission?


You may have seen this photograph before…it’s one of the most famous of the 20th Century and certainly of the Vietnam War. Aside from sheer terror captured by the photographer (Nick Ut), it’s the story behind the photo that propelled this image to infamy. This story became a lynchpin of the anti war and anti napalm movements in America.

Stories have always been critical to the success of social movements. They’ve been used to incite action by exposing injustice the way Rodney King’s story was used to provoke riots in LA and eventually became a symbol of the bubbling tension between the distressed black community and white law enforcement. And they’ve been used like fables to articulate the moral framework of a movement.

Consumer brands have very sophisticated stories. Apple established a narrative condemning the drab and oppressive PC establishment while mobilizing their forces to fight for creativity starting with the <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYecfV3ubP8″>1984 spot</a> and continuing today in the Mac vs PC spots. Stories of Harley Davidson’s popularity with the Hell’s Angels have given the brand an enduring culture of rebellion.

What’s interesting to me about the stories that consumer brands tell is that almost all of them are completely made up – fabricated by genius spin doctors at ad agencies. Whereas NPO’s and causes have real stories to tell, many basing their very existence on the founder’s personal quest. However, due to the inequities of the media market, we hear so few of them.

One of the ways NPO’s do attempt to tell their stories is by utilizing the ubiquitous and oft-insipid mission statement. These statements are too often stripped of the real storytelling elements and exist only as a regrettable corporate necessity. It’s too often an opportunity missed.

What’s your organization’s collective identity? What does it promise? What are the stories that define your cause? Do they just highlight the importance of your work or do they have a moral framework? Are they capable of mobilizing people?

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to tell your story. Getting an audience on the Internet is not a monumental feat (the fact that you’re reading this is a testimonial to that.) We have a forum for accessing the population so it’s now about understanding how to use this medium for effective storytelling. So I pose the question: what are the best practices for storytelling via web 2.0?

In my next post I will dissect the traditional elements of storytelling and explore their applications in the web 2.0 world. In the meantime, check out <a href=”http://www.brandemix.com/”>BRANDEMiX</a&gt;.

Geoff

So What Makes You So Special?

From Geoff:
The latest from Geoff: In my last post, I discussed one of the ways to create a culture around a cause. A concrete mission can energize a community, but it’s only the first step. The key to creating a movement with staying power (one that is magnetic enough to have people seeking you rather than the opposite) is brand.

This term gets thrown around excessively so let me explain exactly what I mean. In essence, brand simply refers to a company’s promise. It’s a set of expectations that a particular product will do certain things or make you feel a certain way. That’s why we expect to jump high when we wear Nike and why we expect to be treated like cattle when shop at Circuit City.

Often times, brand is literally the only difference between 2 competing products. Why do we buy Claritin when the Duane Reade brand is right next to it for half the price and it’s the exact same drug? Because we have higher expectations of the Claritin brand.

But what if you don’t sell products? What if you run an NPO and there are 4 other organizations with the exact same mission (or even the same name) as yours all vying for the same donor. What makes you special? Your mission and your brand cannot be the same thing or you won’t have a differentiating proposition regardless of how noble it is.

People already feel empathy for your cause. They know homelessness is bad. They know children in third world countries need clean water. All of this has been programmed in by society. But in order to get them to buy-in emotionally, which is where the real power is, they must be connected to your culture and your people. What separates you from the 4 competitors is the personality of your organization. It’s the way you go about accomplishing your goal. It’s how your people act, talk, think, and do. That’s your brand.

Social movements grow their influence by branding their followers…both literally (with a branding iron) and figuratively. They give them names: Beatniks, Hippies, Carpetbaggers, and Trekkies. They have a specific method for accomplishing their mission: non-violent opposition, civil disobedience, art and music. They can even have a unique way of dressing: bell bottoms and tie-dye, baggy jeans and ‘Tims, dreadlocks and red, green, and yellow.

Social movements have such distinct cultures that people cannot help but identify with them. Consumer brands are starting to tap into this as they brand their employees. That’s why only “geniuses” work at the Apple store, only Baristas serve coffee at Starbucks, and only geeks can fix your computer at Best Buy.

So what would you call your people? How is your way of accomplishing the mission special? How does your organization’s culture make you special? These are the questions that can turn your cause into a movement. To get a head-start check out BRANDEMiX.