This is the third of a five-part series by Team One chief strategy officer Mark Miller on long-term brand building in contemporary marketing, and balancing long-term thinking with the urgent necessity of short-term action (check out the first installment on The Ritz-Carlton, and second on Taylor Guitars). Here, Miller talks to It Gets Better co-founder Dan Savage, and his long-time producing partner Brian Pines.
Launched in 2010, It Gets Better is a pioneering project for LGBTQ youth, providing positive role models for staying authentic to oneself, and for persevering through adversity, particularly in the formative years of young adulthood. The project was initiated by a small group of accomplished adults, including author and media pundit Dan Savage, who posted an online video that contained personal words of inspiration. While the project was started by just a few, its enduring success is the product of ongoing contributions by many, including notable public figures like Barack Obama, entertainers like Lady Gaga, and big-name brands like Google.
In my conversation with Dan Savage, the co-founder of It Gets Better, and Brian Pines, Dan’s longtime production partner, the two talked about the importance of mobilizing community, participating in culture, creating meaningful roles for project collaborators, having the media on their side as storytellers, and proving the impact of contributions so that advocates remain inspired to advocate. Dan and Brian spoke about the value of operating as more of an open-source enterprise, giving their community an ownership stake in the brand in order to grow in relevance and cultural import over time.
Mark Miller: It Gets Better didn’t begin life as a conventional marketing or brand idea. It was launched as a passion project, where in addressing an issue of personal importance a large and impassioned community was inspired to get involved. Dan, what motivated you to begin It Gets Better? Were you surprised by the community response?
Dan Savage: It started with the suicide of Billy Lucas, this 15-year-old kid in Greensburg, Indiana. These kids told him he was a faggot. They embarrassed him. They encouraged him to kill himself. And these same kids went to Billy’s Facebook memorial page, a page set up by his family, and called him a faggot one more time. They said they were glad that he was dead.
I was furious. I wrote a rageful post. Others added comments. They were furious too. One commenter said, ‘I wish I had known you, Billy, and had been able to tell you that things get better. Rest in peace.’ That comment stuck in my head because things do get better. I called my partner, Terry Miller, and said, ‘I want to do this thing called the It Gets Better Project. I want to make a video and talk to the next Billy Lucas before he kills himself, and to use my column and my podcast to encourage other LGBT adults to do the same.’
Terry and I made that first video. Our goal was to inspire 100 more videos. So what happened? We had thousands of videos posted in the first week. When we created the Project, if someone would have said that the President of the United States would make a video, I would not have believed them. But our little project has had a far bigger and longer-lasting impact than just the one video we made. There was a lot of gasoline on the ground, and we lit a match.
Not only did you get a high volume of contributors to the It Gets Better Project, but a large number of culturally significant contributors, too. What was the turning point where you felt that prevailing culture, including key influencers, were on the side of your project?
Just as the President made a video, the NBC sitcom The Office did an episode referencing It Gets Better videos. For so long, we had culturally lived in denial of the existence of LGBT children. Now, there was a reckoning. We turned contemporary culture in our favor. We opened people’s eyes to the injustice of the suffering of LGBT kids.
When we started, the goal wasn’t to get the President, The Office or Pixar to make videos. The goal was to tap into the collective wisdom of LGBT adults—to light the way for LGBT kids. We wanted to save a life. We ended up forcing culture to look up to face queer kids. We disinhibited LGBT adults by giving them permission to speak directly to LGBT kids. We took the painful memories of LGBT adults and weaponized them in a wonderful way: turning them into a battering ram they could use to break down a door and save a kid’s life.
There is an abundance of organizations soliciting support for what they believe in. But your project continues to be successful at mobilizing people to not only say they care, but to actually do something about it. Why is your community large, growing, and impactful?
The Project works because many people besides me did a lot of stuff. Others made videos. Others created YouTube accounts. This is an open-source, community-based effort. The project lives because others continue to be inspired to do something.
Fundamentally, I feel that it comes down to asking people to do a doable thing. Our job as founders was to identify a small thing. If we could get a lot of people to do that, we could grow it into a big thing. We couldn’t stop all bullying and LGBT suicide, but we could get someone to sit in front of their computer for 10 minutes and talk about what it was like for them growing up, how they got through it, and why they are glad that they’re still here—comparing their life now to then. We weren’t asking people to give a kidney. We were only asking them to make a video and upload it.
Not only was your brand built around the modern concept of community right from the start, but you also deployed and attracted contemporary media channels and outlets to help pass your story forward. Brian, what was the draw for the media? Why were they inclined to be supportive?
Brian Pines: As Dan said, we didn’t start out with the idea of galvanizing popular culture. We started out with a human problem that we were trying to solve, and in so doing, the Project struck a chord with culture. When we did, lots of talented individuals, media channels and companies started coming to us to ask how they could participate.
There was a talented group of LGBT people in Washington D.C., mostly digital thinkers who contributed to the Obama campaign in 2008, who were moved to help—not for a profit, but out of passion. It Gets Better was born on YouTube. It was born on the Internet. And other digital brands, like Google, came to us and asked how they could help to spread the message. Google Chrome contributed an ad campaign that featured Dan and the It Gets Better Project. MTV made a broadcast program with us. The Project received the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Governors Award at the 64th Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards for ‘strategically, creatively and powerfully utilizing the media to educate and inspire.’
We started out speaking one-to-one. In focusing on one, we ended up having the impact of reaching many who helped us to share the story of the Project.
What advice do you have for other leaders aiming to create an enduring brand legacy?
Dan Savage: We created, and continue to create, doable things that communities of people not only wanted to be a part of but could actually take part in. Some situations are made to feel so difficult that people are left saying, ‘What can I do that will possibly make a difference?’ With It Gets Better, we made it possible for lots of people to contribute one small doable thing at a time. We can’t make things perfect. We can start to patch things up.
When you wear a ribbon for a cause, it raises awareness. If the money goes into perpetual fundraising for awareness, people can lose enthusiasm. If people sense their actions don’t help, support will wane. So, my charge to someone who is trying to get something off the ground, so as to make not a short-term but a lasting impact, is to identify a doable thing and make sure what you identified actually does something. Those are the criteria that you have to think about an awful lot.
The best advocates for the future of It Gets Better are those who are 21, 22 and 23 now, but who were in their teens when the Project got started. We positively impacted them. They are the real success stories of the difference that our community has contributed toward.
I began researching the subject of legacy-making with the aim of learning and sharing lessons from those leaders who build services, products, and projects with the ambition of making a durable difference in the world. In our conversation, Dan and Brian taught me about the importance of not just aiming high, but of also inspiring influential others to get involved and take ownership—forming an active community, tapping into pop culture, providing accessible ways for brand champions to contribute, turning media into fans of your story, and demonstrating that fans have the power to make a material difference. While many other organizations are busy selling their message, It Gets Better succeeds by doing something transformative: creating co-owners of its cultural brand versus customers of a more conventional enterprise. And while the lesson is easy to appreciate in the context of an advocacy brand, it’s a lesson that can be applied to any brand in any category that aims to last for a long time. Brands that have co-owners with a stake in its success have the advantage of a powerful set of storytellers to help pass a legacy forward.
Mark Miller is the Chief Strategy Officer at Team One. Mark is the founder of The Legacy Lab, a thought-leadership platform and consulting practice at Team One focused on long-term brand building in a short-term world.