Skip to content

Movements are about consumers as well as campaigners

By John Grounds, non-Executive Director at Forster Communications

25 November 2015
, ,

“We need to build a movement.” “We can’t achieve all this on our own.” “Changing society means engaging everyone to play their part.”

I can guarantee that most of us who have worked in the not for profit sector have heard all these statements over the course of our careers. Rightly so. Charities and campaigning organisations exist to change the world and sometimes that change is greater than any one organisation can hope to achieve on its own. Ambition is good, vision and leadership can be inspiring, partnership can be mutually beneficial and movements can be unstoppable. History books are full of the impact of movements; cultural, social or political.

A quick scan of the dictionary tells us that a movement is:

a group of diffusely organised people or organizations striving toward a common goal relating to human society or social change, or the organized activities of such a group

This definition sums up perhaps the greatest dilemma in making a commitment to build a movement: it can be ‘organised’, or it can be ‘diffuse’. Indeed it can take on a life of its own which moves it beyond the control of any single organisation or individual, particularly in these days of social media where ideas and actions spread in hours rather than days or weeks. Does that matter? If the objective is achieved, shouldn’t we just celebrate our success in inspiring something bigger than ourselves?

From a change perspective, of course we should, but sometimes the conversations we have are not that simple. Boards might well feel that after investing significantly in building a movement and achieving change, that they want the credit, the brand value or at least the committed supporters, donors or customers their efforts deserve.

So is there a best of all worlds? For non-profits, the achievement of the desired change should trump everything else but skilful engagement with supporters and wider audiences can appropriately reinforce the role the organisation has played, build its credibility and ensure those same audiences are ready to support and engage with the next campaign.

For charities and campaigning organisations the notion and value of a movement is clear. It is part of who and how they are.

But increasingly the activation of customers by commercial organisations is being seen to have as much potential as the more familiar not for profit approach. The involvement of business in social change activity is not new, but there is a new opportunity for commercial brands to embrace social change as something much deeper than a one-off media opportunity or sales promotion. It should no longer be about simply ‘ticking the social responsibility box’. More than ever, there is an opportunity to learn from and work with non-profit partners and build more dynamic, engaged relationships with customers.

Customers can be deeply loyal to commercial brands. The relationships afforded by social media arguably run deeper, are more personal and move more quickly than ever before. That means customer expectations are higher, but so is the potential for a new level of customer loyalty. If a trusted brand asks its customers for support, or action, the depth of that support can be just as meaningful as for the supporter of a charity.

A company that activates and mobilises its customers behind a relevant social change agenda – be that ethical consumption, healthy eating, aging better, conserving resources or living responsibly – and is seen to do that not simply for commercial benefit but because it is inseparable from their reason for existing – it is who they are, it is their brand – will reap the benefits in customer loyalty and in business success. That loyalty will run deeper than the next round of product advertising from a competitor.

The opportunity is there for companies, including those we might view as being ‘mainstream’ rather than ‘alternative’ to create movements of active customers that achieve real change. At the same time they can be pioneers in building a new movement of companies for whom social change is not about short term spikes in popularity and sales to achieve deeper social change, customer loyalty and business success as one and the same objective.