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What Marketers Can Learn From The Civil Rights Movement

2015 September 13
by Greg Satell

The summer of 1963 is now recognized as a pivotal moment in history. That was when the Civil Rights Movement marched on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have A Dream”speech, which many credit as turning the tide and led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Yet as John Lewis describes in Walking with the Wind,  an equally pivotal moment occurred a few months before, in an interchange between he and Robert Kennedy.  “John,” Kennedy said to Lewis, “the people, the young people of the SNCC, have educated me.  You have changed me.  Now I understand.”

Marketers tend to like big, bold actions that grab attention and spew off metrics and the March on Washington would definitely qualify as that.  Yet, all too often, we ignore the more mundane work that comes before.  To market a product or an idea, you have to change minds and that’s the real lesson of the Civil Rights Movement.  Marketers need to learn from it.

Framing and Reframing

Before the March on Washington, many people thought of civil rights as a “black problem” or a “southern problem” or even a states rights issue.  However, a large part of  the success of the Civil Rights Movement was getting people to see that it was a fundamental problem of national identity.

The March on Washington was designed not to rally the faithful, but to appeal to mainstream America.  Martin Luther King’s famous speech invoked the Declaration of Independence. It spoke not just to the problems of African Americans, but to the founding principles of the nation.  It was that approach that “educated” Robert Kennedy and changed his heart.

Cognitive psychologists call this framing and it plays into how our brains work.  We are not, as many would have us believe, rational calculators, but see things in the context of connections that already exist in our minds.  True oppression is something that very few people experience, but the ideas embedded in the Declaration of Independence are something we have all internalized.

Successful marketers are adept at reframing their brands in the minds of consumers.  When Helen Gurley Brown took over Cosmopolitan magazine, she transformed it from a guide for housewives to an icon of independence.  Steve Jobs, when he returned to Apple, shifted the Macintosh from a standalone computer to a hub for devices.

Creating New Connections

Although the March on Washington is probably the most famous event of the Civil Rights Movement, the work that created it came years before.  It was the culmination of hundreds of other events—sit-ins, boycotts and protests—staged by smaller groups in cities and towns throughout the south.  These groups formed the core of the movement’s support.

Yet the protesters sought not just to defy authority, but to attract support.  They were careful to show up well dressed, spoke to police and other authority figures respectfully and eschewed violence.  That allowed those outside the movement, like Robert Kennedy, to identify with and admire them.  More recent movements, such as Otpor in Serbia, have taken a similar approach.

Contrast that with the Occupy Movement, which quickly spread from its origins on Wall Street, but then died out almost as fast.  While much of its rhetoric about inequality still resonates, the movement itself is long gone, as is the Black Panther movement that ultimately overtook the nonviolent approach John Lewis and Martin Luther King.

Successful movements connect to the mainstream and that makes all the difference.  It’s easy to cater to passionate enthusiasts, but unless you can appeal to everyone else, you won’t get very far.  After all, while the Civil Rights Movement inspired change, it was those outside it, like Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, that actually made it happen.

Avoiding The Loyalty Trap

As Byron Sharp argues in How Brands Grow, the only way to build a successful brand is to reach new customers.  While many marketers find comfort in focusing on loyal patrons, that will almost surely lead to irrelevance.  Research shows that bigger brands tend to have higher loyalty rates anyway.

And that’s one of the most important lessons of the Civil Rights Movement.  It lost momentum when it turned inward.  When “I have a dream” turned into “by any means necessary,” the movement began to falter and little further was achieved.  Rather than inspiring the support of those outside the movement, it became directed solely on the grievances of those inside of it.

Successful brands are about aspirations and aspirations are always about a better future. They seek to include, not exclude.  Far too often, brands strive to be “edgy” in order to differentiate themselves, but end up alienating far more than they inspire.  That may fire up the loyal base, but it limits the potential for growth.

Today we remember the Civil Rights Movement for what it built, not for what it set out to destroy.

Great Brands Are Driven By Mission And Values

Probably the most salient feature of the Civil Rights Movement is that it not only clearly defined its mission, but was in turn defined by it.  Its resolve to create a better world required a commitment to nonviolence.  That same commitment inspired supporters and diminished opponents.  It’s mission drove its strategy, not the other way around.

Great brands operate the same way.  Apple’s dedication to building “insanely great” products limits the lines of business it can pursue, but made it the world’s most valuable company. Cosmopolitan’s mission of promoting confidence in women resonates even in Islamic countries, where overtly sexual content is taboo.  McDonald’s has built a great business in India, where it must cater to strict vegetarian diets.

Brands that seek to become movements need to do the same.  Rather than relying on empty slogans and artful positioning, we must commit to a mission and promote values.  We also must shape networks, by leveraging our mission and values to create passion that pulls people in, instead of driving away those deemed unworthy.

Great brands, like great movements, aspire not merely to promote an idea, but to create a positive impact on the world.

– Greg

A previous version of this article appeared in Harvard Business Review

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