Since 2011 much has been written about the role of social media in the rise of citizen activism around the globe especially during the Arab Spring revolutions that swept through the Arab States and tragically continues today in Syria. Domestic activism followed shortly after starting in the United States with the #occupywallstreet movement that spread to more than 200 countries. Both were encouraged by the rise of cyber-activism led by groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks on that imposed transparency on government and private sector organizations hoping to maintain security and privacy in the face of an aggressively open web. The coincidence of these three levels of activism is no accident but rather a reflection that citizens throughout the world are aware than when gathered in sufficient numbers, they can demand changes in political and business sector thinking and behavior.
It’s not surprising them that 2012 saw the rise of consumer activism with customers demands greater transparency, authenticity and accountability from brands. Emboldened by a year of desperate citizen activism around the globe, cases of customer activism multiplied including pushback against the Bank of America debit card fee, Verizon’s online payment fee, Bank Transfer Day, Netflix’s withdrawal of Quickster, citizen and web-wide pushback over SOPA, customer reaction to gay marriage remarks by the CEO of Chick-Fil-A, outcry over Apple’s sub-par map app, and the list goes on.
So what can marketers expect in 2013? Every company or institution must now function as a social brand due to the mass adoption and penetration of social media in our lives as citizen and customers (and by social brand I mean a an organization that uses engages in a real time dialogue with its customers using mobile, social and gaming technologies to build its reputation, profits and social impact.) One need only look at the re-election of President Obama, Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters social network or the social branding phenomenon that was Red Bull’s coverage of Felix Baumgarten’s leap from space to see how pervasive social branding has become.
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I explain in detail the rising partnership between brands and consumers built around social media in my book We First, including its critical implications for the private sector and the potential for systemic and sustainable, global social change. Michael Porter has popularized the powerful concept of shared value creation by brands and consumers working in partnership to serve the well being of the company, shareholders and society at large. It’s at the intersection of these concepts that the new consumer expectation on brands for 2013 can be found.
Building on the legacy of citizen, consumer and cyber-activism, 2013 will be the year in which shared activism will take center stage in marketing. What this means is that companies will define the purpose of their brand and identify a cause that is meaningful to their customers and in alignment with the core values of their brand. The company will then seek to partner with their customer community based on shared values to fulfill a common purpose, whether it is access to clean water for millions of people, improving childhood education or women’s rights around the globe.
There are several economic drivers behind this prediction. Consumers around the world are very aware of the inertia caused by political gridlock and the scarce resources that limit the impact of important philanthropic, non-profit and NGO work. In addition, they have personally endured a tough economy in the United States, Europe and the developing world since the global economic meltdown in 2008. As a result, research by Edelman in the U.S. and Havas Media in Europe shows that global consumers want brands to be more socially responsible and believe that they can achieve greater social impact by working together with brands.
As a result, Fortune 50 brands as well as a rising social entrepreneurs class are quickly creating a third pillar of social change in addition to government and philanthropy. Beyond a genuine desire to contribute, they are doing this to shore up the well bring of the society on which their businesses depend, to respond to consumer demands borne out by research, and because when they support a cause that is truly alignment with the mission of their brand they reinforce the for-profit narrative that the brand is telling to market its products.
For example, one need only look at Proctor and Gamble and the work it is doing through its Pampers brand in partnership with UNICEF. When a shopper buys a packet of Pampers diapers it funds a tetanus vaccination for a mother or newborn child in the developing world. To date, P&G had funded over 30 million vaccinations saving an estimated 100,000 lives. There is no doubt that the values reflected by such an effort would affect the purchasing decisions of a parent in turn building loyalty and goodwill towards the brand while saving lives.
Such shared activism can take many forms including disclosure. As one of the world’s leading marketers, it comes as no surprise that it has developed several strategies to establish a leadership position within the context of an intimately connected global community. Through its Nike Green XChange they have shared the intellectual property behind their products so they can work with other companies to address climate change together. They launched the Environment Design Tool revealing to competitors how they reduce the carbon footprint of their supply chain. Finally, their Better World project includes several initiatives to support the….
Through these efforts Nike has been able to reinforce its global leadership position in the minds of its customers by demonstrating a commitment to something higher than its own self-interest. The same thinking informs the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, led by Patagonia, which reveals yet another expression of shared activism. In this case competitors from within the footwear and apparel industry (including Nike, Adidas, Puma, Timberland, and Patagonia among many others) have all agreed to hold themselves accountable to the same sustainability index to address climate change more effectively.
With 2012 drawing to a close after a U.S. Presidential election that took social media engagement to even greater heights, brands from all sectors will be expected to raise their activist profiles in 2013 and partner with consumers to achieve their respective goals. The writing is already on the wall when you consider the strategic positioning of many global social brands. Nike’s ‘Better World,’ Starbuck’s ‘Shared Planet,’ Coca-Cola’s Open Happiness,’ the Pepsi Refresh Project and IBM’s ‘Smarter Planet’ should all be viewed as platforms for co-creative storytelling with their customers directed towards a shared social purpose.
Such storytelling can take many creative forms within a single company as demonstrated by Coca-Cola whose sustainability efforts range from providing access to clean water through their Foundation work in Africa in partnership with organizations like USAID, to providing 300,000 women in areas like Brazil, India and South Africa with access to business training, funding and financial services through their 5×20 Project, to the protection of polar bear habitat in conjunction with the WWF through its ‘Arctic Home’ project. As Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola’s CEO, has stated “Partners, in this day and age, are an absolute must. The scope and scale of today’s challenges demand cooperation across what we like to call the golden triangle of government, business and civil society.”
Each of these efforts from major brands like Proctor and Gamble, Nike and Coca-Cola are powerful in their own right due the scale of their businesses, but just as important is the leadership example they provide to other smaller companies. Each initiative is a striking example of how a global brand tells its customers how they will add meaning and value to their lives inspiring those customers to partner with them amplifying their social change initiatives using their own social media channels.
For those companies willing to move with technology and respond to the loud and clear demands of their media-savvy customers, 2013 represents an unprecedented opportunity to build their reputation, customers and social impact in partnership with their customers, and in so doing, provide the leadership and personal satisfaction required to build a better world.
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