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How to Market a Movement

shutterstock_528806626sheenahogan1As the recent Trump campaign showed, a movement can be a very effective force when it comes to delivering change. But what can marketers learn from all of this asks Sheena Horgan.

“Ours was not a campaign but rather an incredible and great movement.”  Or so said Donald Trump after winning the US Presidential Election.  Regardless of your opinion of his politics, President-elect Trump recognised that what was needed to win the 2016 US Presidential Election was far more than the usual electoral campaign that persuades, but a movement that would really stir and motivate people to act which in the end they did. And in their millions.

Movements are an essential part of society.  They hold a mirror up to us that make us question and debate our reflection and what are often long held beliefs that are accepted rather than truly believed.  Movements are as necessary as they are disruptive and they are all about communication.

For our industry, movements and in particular this example, offer us some valuable insights and fundamental learnings worth considering when creating marketing campaigns.


Movements have context.  So you need to start with a long cold hard look at the environment.  The rose tinted glasses along with preconceived notions and perceived wisdom need to be binned.

Don’t just look, but actually “see” what’s around you.  Don’t just hear the words and sentences, but listen to the tone and inference.  This isn’t arguing semantics, rather it’s about genuinely observing the world around us and identifying the wood from the trees, so to speak.

Resist the temptation to see and hear what you want to see and hear, which takes more openness than you might think.  As marketers and media people, we are remarkably guilty of group think.  We make assumptions about Millenials and mothers, for example, pushing a message that we believe they want to consume despite its sweeping nature (Note to retailers, please don’t assume Christmas is all about Mum doing all the work).  Take a more Freakonomics-type of approach and delve below the surface of data to inevitably reveal more about the why than the what people do.

Had the Clinton posse put more emphasis on the context facing the American electorate, they might have recognised that insulting the growing number of Trump followers by calling them “deplorable” amongst other things, would certainly not bring them around to voting for Hilary.  Had they been willing to, they might have learnt from the Referendum here, where trying to understand the position of the No voters rather than negatively dismissing them, meant the Yes movement successfully converted many through compassionate and contextualised discourse.

Similarly parading celebrity after celebrity throughout the campaign might have been recognised as solidifying the ‘Have and Have Nots’ optics that were being railed against by so many.  Easy for me to write now, but the writing was on the wall had someone only been willing to read the graffiti…

Movements Can’t Be Manufactured

Movements happen.  They can’t be produced and they can’t be pushed.  They’re borne not manufactured, and usually in the face of adversity.   By their nature they inevitably start small and grow.  And once momentum gathers they are like a runaway train that can’t easily be stopped let alone de-railed.

Meaning is oxygen to a movement.  Because without meaning movements can’t exist.  Movements hold deep seated meaning for their participants and their belief and passion is a catalyst to growth not least because its transferable.  Take green issues, gay rights, anti-racism as examples.  These movements were initiated by individuals with conviction.  And the integrity of their conviction gave the movements a self-fulfilling credibility that ultimately was contagious.


Just as Malcolm Gladwell articulated the importance of a message being sticky, so language is another critical component of a movement.  Its simplicity can ensure nothing gets lost in translation, and its repetition can foster belief and acceptance.

Trump didn’t mince his words.  He chose simple ones that had meaning, and that hit home without needing elaboration or even illustration.  The self-explanatory “potential”, “opportunity” and dream” demonstrably resonated with his followers, and most likely nudged the un-deciders off the fence.

Movements are articulated via diction that does not alienate or exclude.   Playing to the widely reported (ironically post-election rather than before) “disenfranchised” public, Trump’s collegiate phrase “we’re all in this together” promised cohesion and bound people to the message and therefore to the movement.

For marketing and election campaigns words are the manifestation of strategic thought but for movements, they are the catalyst for commitment as the wordsmiths shape the purpose that is the magnet for the movement.

Of course the ultimate irony in all of this is that the movement Donald Trump has started, has also given birth to another, the anti-Trump movement with followers as passionately aggrieved as Trump’s.  When wondering where this will all end, perhaps another quote might be helpful – “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war”!

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ November Issue 2016)© to order back issues please call 016611660

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