The Impact of Social Movements

There can be power in a voice. But it’s when that voice gains traction that an entire movement can take place. We’ve seen a lot of powerful movements over the years, but one that sticks out for me is the recent  #MeToo phenomenon. The point of this post is not to go into the details or opinions of the movement but to study the power it holds and the change it’s evoked. Within this movement is lessons brands can learn from and apply to their own campaigns.

Wikipedia identifies social movement as “organizational structures and strategies that may empower oppressed populations to mount effective challenges and resist the more powerful and advantaged elites.”

In the very simplest terms, #Me Too was created in 2006 by social activist and community organizer Tarana Burke to denounce sexual assault and harassment through a grassroots campaign. It was then popularized by Alyssa Milano (#MeToo) in October 2017 in the wake of allegations against movie producer, Harvey Weinstein. Since that time there have been hundreds of millions of social media posts using the hashtag (Facebook reported 12 million mentions in the first 24 hours of Alyssa Milano’s first tweet). By the Wikipedia definition, #MeToo became a social movement. Many women, for the first time, felt they had a support network who would listen and validate their stories. The movement gained so much traction, it became Time’s Person of the Year  in the form of “The Silence Breakers.”

“These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought.”

Clearly, the rise of social platforms has made social activism more accessible. It took 11 years from the time Burke started her campaign until now for the #MeToo movement to take off and spark a conversation among mainstream media. Another recent example is the Women’s March. A Facebook post from a grandmother in Hawaii exploded into a social movement that united more than 2 million people of all ages, races, and religion. The quickness and intensity in which the movement snowballed would have been inconceivable 10 or 15 years ago. The infamous 1969 Peace Moratoriumdemonstrations against the Vietnam War took six months to organize.

In the corporate world, this looks a little bit different but is still just as powerful. Let’s look at branded movements such as Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign, American Express’ “Small Business Saturday”, or any of Dove’s positive body image campaigns for its Self Esteem Project. These brands evoked a call to action just as the #MeToo campaign did. Always and Dove educated and encouraged positive conversations around females and body image. American Express brought attention to the millions of small businesses that were struggling to compete against big-box retailers, coming out of the recession. Since its 2010 inception, Small Business Saturday (the Saturday after Thanksgiving) is a national campaign, year after year.

Aside from the emotional appeal of these campaigns, what else makes them successful? They’re timely and appropriately relate to the brand’s product. However, for every success, there are misses. Take, for example, Pepsi’s unsuccessful attempt at capitalizing on the “Black Lives Matter” movement with its 2017 video spot suggesting that peace and unity can be achieved with a can of the brand’s soda. There was an immediate and widespread backlash at the brand’s lack of empathy in how they minimized and disparaged the point of the movement. Since the campaign, Pepsi has stayed silent on the movement and any other social campaign since.

So what are the takeaways for brands thinking about getting involved with social movements? The campaign should certainly be in support of a cause. It should relate back the brand’s product or message. It should be educational and contain a call to action. And then, when it’s all said and done, the brand needs to continue supporting the cause when the lights, cameras, and attention fades. You can bet the women who are part of the #MeToo campaign will be supporting that cause for years to come. Always, Dove and American Express are still supporting their social movements years after their initial launch. It’s important to consumers to see brands’ commitment to their products, their message, and the community they are supporting

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