What Your Brand Can Learn From The Tug-Of-War Over Kony 2012

It’s hard to even know where public opinion stands on the viral video these days. But what is clear is that it’s just another signal that we’re moving toward an era where companies have to do more with their marketing than just sell useless products: They need to help take stands.

What Your Brand Can Learn From The Tug-Of-War Over Kony 2012
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It’s hard to believe it was only a couple of weeks ago that the Kony 2012 phenomenon first broke. In that short time, the Kony film’s content and the motives behind the film’s creation have been dissected from all angles. Not only has there been a backlash, there’s been a backlash-against-the-backlash (and one nervous breakdown).


The film is like a Rorshach test: People look at it and see different things, with some viewing it as a moving documentary, others seeing it as a rousing call to action, still others seeing it as a piece of manipulative exploitation, and so on. But I look at it and I see something else, something you probably wouldn’t expect to hear. In Kony 2012, I see the future of marketing.

Why do I see that? Probably because I’m both a marketer and a student of movements–which means I’m looking at Kony 2012 through an unusual bifocal lens (yes, I wear glasses). As a student of movements, I’ve become particularly immersed in the subject thanks to my new book, UpRising, which looks at the changing nature and power of movements in today’s world. And I have to say the Kony one is brilliant. Very well conceived and executed, powerful in its message, and extremely effective at rallying people to believe in an idea and take action to support that idea.

“We are constantly bombarded by Internet memes. They are like jets lining up in the distance at LAX. One lands and we can be sure another is on the way. But what is interesting about this is that it’s a meme with a meaningful purpose,” says Jim Haven, the founder of the ad agency Creature.

As a marketer, I can’t help wondering: What if brands could align themselves with ideas and movements as powerful as this one? That may sound like a far-fetched notion, or maybe even an inappropriate one. After all, movements are supposed to originate from the grassroots, and they’re supposed to take on worthy social or political causes, so what does any of that have to do with marketing?

“In the wake of the Great Recession, we’re seeing the limits of the profit motive as a motivator. The profit motive, to be sure, is a good thing–both morally and for efficiency. But it’s not the only thing. So more and more, we’re seeing the rise of the ‘purpose motive,’ the idea that the very best companies stand for something and contribute to the world,” Daniel Pink, author of Drive.

Marketing is about making people aware of brands–and beyond that, encouraging people to care about those brands. As we all know, marketers align themselves with popular entertainment (sponsoring shows with ads) and occasionally with forms of art. Marketers even sometimes get behind worthy causes by sponsoring charities. But movement marketing is relatively new, and just starting to take hold and grow. The idea is for a brand to discover an issue or idea that really matters to consumers, then help build a movement behind that idea.


Ole Pedersen, the chief strategy officer at my agency, StrawberryFrog, adds: “We are driven by emotion, we have to care, and once we care you’d be surprised what we’ll do on a brand’s behalf. People are social creatures. We have a herd mentality. We move as a flock driven forward by ideas we believe in.”

But I want to get back to Kony 2012, because I think it offers some great lessons on movement building. The people behind this phenomenon were working with an obscure subject, involving something that’s far removed from most people’s lives. Something that’s also very unpleasant to talk about (many of the victims of Kony’s brutality were children). Given the material, you wouldn’t think this would become such incredibly popular content, would you?

Scott Goodson’s book, Uprising, is available now and has a website.

But it did, and I think it’s because people are hungry right now for stories and issues that have real substance. If you can find something that people can feel passionate about, it’s the first step in breaking through to people. People are also looking to get involved; there’s an activist spirit out there now, and Kony 2012 tapped into it. The filmmakers didn’t just tell a story–they told people how to do something about this injustice. They provided concrete ways for people to take action (which is one of the keys to launching a movement).

Once they did this, the power of social media took over and did the rest. This is the beauty of movements today: If you can launch one, and give it a little momentum at the start, it’s liable to spread like wildfire, because people today are so able and eager to share whatever it is they feel passionate about.

There are lots of Kony-like stories out there, waiting to be told. They’re not all horror stories; some may be uplifting. They may be happening halfway across the world or closer to home. Marketers have the resources and clout to explore some of these stories and issues themselves, or to fund talented storytellers (and there are a lot of them out there) who can bring these ideas to life. The key here is in finding ideas that people can feel passionate about–ideas that folks can rally around. Those ideas can form the basis of a movement.

Clients and brand marketers are catching on. “If given the choice of placing an ad that might passively reach millions and millions people versus inciting just a million people to believe and belong to a movement, I would choose the latter,” says Kipp Kreutzberg, the CMO of European Wax. “When brands become inculcated within culture, they are no longer in warehouses or on retail shelves. They are on bodies, in wardrobes, within the attitudes and behaviors of consumers.”


A few caveats here: Marketers entering this domain must have some integrity and some guts. Movement marketing works best when it’s done with honesty and openness. The Kony filmmakers can attest to how much scrutiny this kind of storytelling is subject to; people will question the agenda of any marketer getting involved in telling real stories or tackling real issues. So only get involved with stories you genuinely believe in and care about. And don’t try to manipulate the truth or inject hype into the issue.

I think marketers are going to need to move in this direction to connect with people in a deeper, more meaningful way, beyond the tired sales pitches and fluffy commercials. People today care about real stories, real issues, real solutions; if you want to connect with them, these are the things you should be talking about.