Build Brand Movements Around 3 I's

One of the most widely praised campaigns of the last year or so is REI’s #OptOutside, which encouraged people to spend the day after Thanksgiving enjoying nature instead of shopping. In its second go-round this year, more than 275 organizations, including Subaru and Google, joined in, in addition to all the people that participated. 

The campaign is one of those rare ones that spawns a movement, which these days is every marketer’s goal. With a brand movement, the thinking goes, your customers become advocates, people who don’t know you become fans, your message spreads and sales follow. 

The advice online—we read it all—tends to boil down to standing for something that resonates with your target customers and giving people ways to participate. That’s a partial recipe, but our conclusion was it isn’t enough. 

Successful brand movements need to be built around a budding cultural idea, inspire people to take action, and most importantly, give people an identity they can adopt as their own. Being a marketing agency, we quickly named these “the three I’s.”



Idea. Brand movements aren’t about a company or a product. They’re about something culturally relevant, but just below the surface, an unexpressed or unharnessed feeling shared by a large group. 

The idea has to feel right coming from the company. #OptOutside tapped into a backlash against a shopping-obsessed culture and was credible coming from a company that sells outdoor gear.

Inspiration. Brand movements tap emotions. To be successful, they need to take a stand and make people feel something. They also need to make it clear what actions people can take to be a part of the movement, and again, it shouldn’t require making a purchase.

#OptOutside participants don’t need to buy a sleeping bag, they just needed to go for a Black Friday hike. 

Identity. Brand movements let people self-select into a subgroup and encourage participants to recognize one another as the in-crowd. They force people to put themselves into one of two camps, by posing a question that has a pretty clear answer to your target audience. Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Are you someone who embraces the new or someone satisfied with the status quo? 

Creating mechanisms that allow group members to recognize one another and reinforce their in-ness is a key component of a brand movement. One can only imagine a trail full of self-satisfied #OptOutsiders waving to one another in unspoken acknowledgment of their shared values. 

Hitting all three I’s doesn’t guarantee that a campaign will spawn a brand movement—ultimately they can be led, but not entirely controlled—but we couldn’t find any examples of brand movements that didn’t meet all three of these conditions. 

Also, brand movements take time and sustained commitment on the part of the company to work. 

One of the most successful and long-lasting brand movements is Nike’s “just do it” campaign. It started with the idea that anyone can be an athlete, inspired people to exercise, and forced people to decide whether they were a person of action or not. Importantly, you don’t need to go to the gym every day or ever go for a run to be part of the in-crowd. You just need to feel like you’re a person of action. 

If a campaign works, whether it’s a brand movement doesn’t matter much. That said, evaluating campaigns using the three I’s was the one test that reliably matched our gut reaction about whether something felt like a brand movement. 

Newman’s Own’s pledge to give all proceeds to charity stands for something that’s important to a lot of people and lets them express it when they buy salad dressing or microwave popcorn. But it doesn’t have an identity component. 

Stella Artois, through a partnership with Water.org, has provided more than 250,000 people with five years of clean water. But while inspiring, it requires people to buy something from the company. 

There was a tendency among the examples we studied to emphasize the mechanics of sharing at the expense of a galvanizing idea. Social media provides a way for people who want to be a part of a movement to connect with one another, inspiring more passion and action. But it isn’t a replacement for any of the three I’s. 

There was also a tendency for companies to associate themselves with a cause or a non-profit organization. We think that’s great, but companies need to find a cause that’s consistent with its idea, not allow a partnership to replace having one. 

Lastly, coming up with an idea that reflects a company’s core values and reason for being is much easier said than done. A lot of companies, especially ones that have been around for awhile, don’t have a clear sense of purpose, at least not one that’s widely known to employees and feels credible to customers. Figuring this out is a necessary first step for any company that wants to start a movement.

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