Brand evoked movements

The Team is proud to support the University of East Anglia’s Masters in Brand Leadership. To celebrate this year’s Future Brand Leaders we’re publishing a series of guest blogs to showcase the challenges facing the brands of today – and tomorrow.

Whilst society continues to unravel, our planet remains engulfed in a turbulent state of decline – as characterised by widespread division and animosity, the worsening effects of climate change, as well as countless other tragedies. Even business and commerce has played a role in worsening this plight through the unspoken, yet historically held, belief that profit reigns supreme. However, the times are changing.

For instance, consumers are now more connected, informed and empowered than ever before due to the rise of social and digital technologies. In turn, recent decades have witnessed a shift away from traditional market structures and brand-consumer relationships. A new world order has emerged – one centred around a two-way dialogue between brands and consumers. The topic of discussion? The growing demand and support for companies that pursue a purpose beyond profit. As a result, the pressure on businesses to act in the best interests of society has never been greater.

However, my research suggests that the next evolutionary phase of this market structure, and for brand-consumer relationships, will not be focused on a dialogue at all – it will be based on action. More specifically, it will be centred on collaboration between organisations and consumers in the pursuit of mutually beneficial goals. After all, consumers – especially millennials and Gen Z – now want to play a more active role in the creation of a better world, whilst brands represent the platforms for unlocking and harnessing this collective potential.

As a result, the importance and prevalence of ‘brand evoked movements’ (social movements created by brands) is set to rise exponentially. For proof of this, look no further than the staggering value that American Express has generated – for themselves and for society as a whole – through ‘Small Business Saturday’. The same is true of Dove with their iconic ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’, as well as UNICEF due to their widely renowned ‘Tap Project’.

Yet, the question remains – how do you build a successful movement? Well, over a four-month period, I investigated three separate cases – Nike’s ‘Girl Effect’, as well as the aforementioned Dove and American Express examples. I conducted twelve interviews with seasoned branding specialists (including senior figures involved in the development of said movements), whilst also surveying 180 consumer participants. In turn, I was able to craft a detailed set of guidelines for the creation and implementation of such movements. Below are the five key themes that emerged across my recommendations.


1) Authenticity

Above all else, brand evoked movements must embrace authenticity. However, this also represents a double-edged sword as a lot of consumers struggle to perceive for-profit brands as being genuinely concerned with societal causes. In order to overcome this, brands must be authentic within their intent and communications. Although the infamous Pepsi commercial of last Summer did not constitute a brand evoked movement itself, it still highlights the need for brands to possess the right intentions before committing to such large-scale decisions.

Furthermore, their choice of cause must be authentic. For example, Dove’s decision to create a movement centred around self-esteem, as well as the true definition of beauty, was a choice that spoke to their heritage and the nature of their sector – thus accelerating its societal acceptance. However, the implementation of a movement must also ooze authenticity. Just look at how American Express has continued to dedicate time, talent and resources into ‘Small Business Saturday’ every year since its inception. These actions demonstrate an internal belief in the movement, whilst also showing that the brand is not engaged in empty rhetoric.


2) Relevance

Relevance is key. Without this, support will dwindle and the movement runs the risk of becoming lost amongst an ocean of competing demands for attention. To avoid this, the founding brand must remain up-to-date with and/or ahead of technological trends (embracing them appropriately and authentically for their movement).

Brands also need to understand the chosen market and target audience of their movement, as well as the cultural zeitgeist of their time. Furthermore, a clear brand-cause fit must be exhibited through either a shared heritage, sector or set of values. Lastly, for relevance to be achieved, steps must be taken to localise issues when necessary (think Save the Children’s ‘Most Shocking Second a Day’ campaign).


3) A Shared Identity

Brand evoked movements deliver the greatest rewards for their founders when they possess a shared identity. After all, how can the public appreciate your brand’s efforts, if they are not actually aware of them? However, brands must be careful not to appear primarily motivated by financial returns or self-interest (otherwise this could undermine their legitimacy).

Therefore, an authentic brand-cause fit is again required, as well as a continued and communicated commitment to their desired societal outcome. In turn, the brand can and should be promoted alongside the movement, but the latter must always take centre stage so as to maximise its credibility and cultural resonance. Finally, commonality can also be reinforced through a shared visual identity. By following these steps, the brand should experience minimal resistance in aligning the movement to its goals.

4) Creativity

Creativity needs to be embraced if the movement is to stand out and garner support amongst a cause cluttered market. For instance, at a time when the rest of the beauty world was fixated on glitz and glamour, Dove chose to pull in the completely opposite direction – this made them a lasting topic of conversation, whilst also casting a light on a serious issue that had yet to receive the attention it deserved.

Creativity must also be present throughout the process of ‘amplification’ (the design of actions for movement participation). Just look at what American Express has managed to achieve in turning an everyday behaviour – shopping – into a means of showing support for small businesses. This coupling of creativity and simplicity has led to public participation on an unprecedented scale. Naturally though, such movements must also continue to exhibit creativity across all of their communications.


5) Evolution

To prosper, movements need to evolve. I found that this was especially true of the technology and platforms they embraced. However, brands must also remain up-to-date with generational shifts in thinking, whilst regularly examining whether the cause still retains personal/societal relevance for movement participants.

Furthermore, the movement and its founder should both engage in continuous and evolving action – such as the ever expanding initiatives embraced by Girl Effect, as well as their sustained financial support from Nike. In doing so, these parties have been able to demonstrate authenticity and a clear proof of impact. However, the actions for movement participation (AMPs) should also grow and adapt over time.

For example, UNICEF’s ‘Tap Project’ initially raised donations by asking restaurant goers to pay $1 for a glass of tap water (a commodity that would have usually been free). Yet, in 2014, the movement had evolved by asking consumers to visit the ‘Tap Project’ website on their smartphones and challenged them not to touch their device for as long as possible (for every fifteen minutes that they managed to resist, UNICEF’s sponsors donated the monetary equivalent of one day’s clean water to children in need). As of today, the combination of these AMPs has led to the provision of safe water to over 500,000 people.

Finally, the ownership of the movement may eventually transfer to the public at large (as increasingly pursued by American Express). Alternatively, it may even evolve into its own separate entity (as exemplified by Girl Effect). Ultimately, this decision rests on what the brand feels is the appropriate course of action for itself and its movement. Either way, one thing remains certain – the brand has played a significant role in the development of a more purpose-driven society and consumers are not going to forget that anytime soon!

Ryan David Thomson