• Abhijit Das

The Anatomy of Social Movements and How Can Brands Leverage Them

Originally written in 2012, it became my compass in the journey of brand building. Looking back I feel it closely connects the dots in the past and goes all the way into the future.

Image: ©2021 Pathfinderabhi


What is a social movement? And, what is not.


Cause.com, co-founded by Sean Parker and Joe Green, in 2007 goes with the motto “Anyone can change the world”. Today it houses 5 Lakh causes, supported by 170 million members and 40 million dollars overall. Yes, it is a big business, but it is a bigger indication is of our times, our value system and the vulnerability of the status quo. The question is, are they social movements? Can they achieve what notable social movements like the ‘Chipko Movement’ or the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ have achieved?


To answer this question, let’s first look at the concept of social movements.

Social movements are best defined as ‘collective action’ aimed at changing the ‘conscience’ (unwritten codes) or the ‘constitution’ (written codes) of a homogenous group. The ‘Slut Walk’ and the ‘Pink Underwear’ movements are examples of the former. Both of them challenged the moral policing of women by a male dominated society. They did attempt a change in ‘attitude’ but the movement was devoid of a definitive yardstick. While the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ and the ‘Jan Lokpal Movement’ are examples of the latter where the laws governing the conduct of citizens was put to evaluation and modified in letter and in spirit.

In the same breath now let us look at some brand campaigns dubbed as social movements like Gillette’s ‘WALS’ or Mahindra’s ‘Spark the rise’. The former attempted to change the attitude towards facial hair among men and women, along the axis of attraction. The latter weaved itself into an existing upward shift of the bottom of the pyramid in India. While WALS addressed the elitist or urban population, the latter hit at the grassroots level. The point-of-view that ‘women find men with facial hair unattractive’ may be right or wrong, but it is skin-deep, a fad at best, not central enough to cause social change. Hence, cannot be regarded as a social movement. It is a tea-time update, unable to hold a conversation or debate. And it was treated as one, flavor of the season. On the other hand, ‘spark the rise’ is too generic and lacks conflict which is a core ingredient of a movement-worthy cause. It is as unprovocative as saying; music can make your mood. You cannot disagree with it, but it cannot spark a conversation or debate either. It is seems to draw focus on Mahindra as a brand, which is relevant to a small universe, not enough to trigger a social movement. It is too branded to be outward, and its inwardness is a handicap. Can you have ‘Think different’ as a social movement?

Over the next few minutes, we will have a method to make this distinction.

There are ingredients that make a social movement and determine its extent. If you are missing some, probably you don’t have a social movement there.


What is the relevance of this dialogue in our times?


The global economic crisis, global warming, sustainability questions arising from the fast depletion of natural resources are brewing unease and unrest. They have been there and will be there for a very long time. It would be apt to say that instability and uncertainty has become a way of life. People in every sphere of activity are feeling the brunt of this crisis.


Firstly, the world today is going through a transformative state. One of the main reasons behind this state of flux is the continuous presence of crisis. We are living next door to it. Some erupt un-announced while some are anticipated and awaited. In this scenario social movements become critical in helping us live through the crisis and cross over to the desired state.


Through social movements individuals vent out their feelings on larger issues that they cannot take on as an individual. They take solace in a shared experience and eventually succeed in coming to terms with the instability and uncertainty, one way or the other.


Secondly, technology has managed to bring the remotest of experiences alive to a large audience across the globe, timely. Participation has become a social obligation and is complemented by evolved platforms that allow sharing with convenience.


Thirdly, the mandate to ‘look out for us’ is shifting from the ‘powers that be’ to our own hands. Uncertain and insecure, we are learning to trust ourselves and take matters in our own hands. The wisdom of the crowds is gaining legitimacy and effectiveness.


In view of these broad changes the way people look at brands and engage with them is bound to change as well.


Brands have entered our lives – individual, family, community, country and planet. So, all brands have a choice to participate in our lives and talk to our head and heart, than just talk to our wallets. Between the increasing clutter of brands and the demanding lives of people, brands need to chalk out a role that is valued and remembered in constructing or deconstructing the way of life as we know it.

Just as we are so actively involved in this transformation, we expect our brands to be as well. Brands can add a lot more value to themselves with this new model of engagement in addition to the competitive advantage they have on the shelf. It is not merely coincidental that brands with great CSR initiatives are favored by consumers and countries alike. A CSR is still extrinsic and not intrinsic to the purpose of brands and therefore the concept of social movements become important to connect with the audience at a deeper level.

Today, every brand wants to be seen as a game-changer and shed the commoditized nature of its offering in the cacophony of competition. It is not easy for brands to charm us off our preoccupation with a mere utility which is not so consequential to our transformative state. And connecting with people through a social movement ensures hitch-hiking into their lives and to their circles leveraging advocacy and unpaid media respectively.


In a nutshell, brands need to achieve an intrinsic connect between their purpose and people’s lives in this transformation and leveraging or creating social movements is a way to get there.


The fundamental pieces of the puzzle


A group that is addressed by a social movement could be a race, society, nation or the world. It is important for the individuals of this group to share something common. This commonality should be central enough to qualify them as a homogenous group. Unless individuals intended to be involved in the movement can identify with each other, one cannot whip up a social movement.


...(contd.)


This paper is available for discussion "on request" for those attempting social change as a shift from a transactional relationship with nature to an endearing communion with nature.


© Abhijit Das, 2012. All rights reserved. You can reach me at authors@narrativ.design


Gratitude & Disclaimer: Scholars studied social movements for a very long time and in great depth. My work owes a lot to those luminaries, whose detail and debate have helped my analysis and point-of-view one way or another. This paper concerns itself with finding a working framework of social movements in the interest of brands and businesses.

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