Traditional management theory tells us that sustainable advantage means protecting our companies against competitors, imitators and outside influences – So what lessons can Extinction Rebellion teach us about viral marketing to boost a business brand.

The world has changed. Customers and communities no longer want to be treated as passive consumers. They want to be involved in creating the experience they receive.

They value relationships not transactions. They are loyal when they feel a sense of connection and ownership with your brand – and vocal when the connection breaks. And they are a tremendous source of ideas and innovation.

For the 21st century enterprise, sustainable growth comes from opening our ideas and enterprises to the world, and from branding which breeds a genuine sense of connection – of ownership.

Extinction Rebellion’s ideas and branding are clear, allowing it to harness significant support by letting people identify with it in their own way.

Charities, social enterprises and movements like Extinction Rebellion have learned that connection is their protection.

Their missions will only grow and succeed if they matter enough to other people that they will willingly support and stand up for them.

Relinquishing ownership is something that every founder must learn. Following the recent incident in which angry crowds dragged an activist from a London train – Extinction Rebellion must adapt to retain supporters’ goodwill.

The Big Sleep Out is an example of what happens when a small startup gives ownership of its ideas to the world.

Founded from a sandwich shop in Edinburgh, the Big Sleep Out is now a global event, involving over 50,000 people in generating more than £50m this year alone.

The big idea? Ending homelessness, not alleviating it. Again, a simple concept, but it changed the way people engaged with homelessness, enlisting A-list celebrity support along the way.

Look at the 2014 ice bucket challenge. It originated in support of Motor Neurone Disease, spreading virally and raising over $100m for the ALS Association in the US and £7m in the UK.

But soon, other charities benefited from their own supporters doing the challenge.

Using old school logic, it was understandable that the ALS Association initially sought to trademark the idea. But a backlash ensued because participants had taken ownership of the idea.

Sensibly, the trademark application was dropped. Okay, the originating charity didn’t benefit from every single celebrity soaked or dollar raised. But letting the idea run free got millions of people talking about ALS in ways that would never otherwise have been achieved.

Word of mouth support doesn’t happen by magic, but there are some simple steps to improving your branding by involving other people in it:

Be icily clear on who you want to reach

Who is the target audience for your message? It sounds obvious, but with limited time and resources, you need a laser-like focus on key markets or segments.

Involve people in exploring different ways to run or sustain the organisation, its services or impact – Accept, however reluctantly, the open source mantra that the most intelligent people don’t all work for you. Image by Callum Shaw via Unsplash.

Identify the needs and aspirations of your stakeholders – and change in response

It’s risky to base decisions on hunches about what people want from your organisation. The difference between thinking you know and actually knowing is critical. Find out about your company from the outside in, get a demand-side view, to understand what people really need from you.

Understand the types of involvement people want and provide a range of ways for them to do so

Make it easy for people to get involved in your work and messages. Can you provide opportunities for people to give their views out of hours? As part of their everyday contact with you? In imaginative ways? With different technologies?

Involve people in exploring different ways to run or sustain the organisation, its services or impact

Remember your work will only be sustainable if it matters to people. Accept, however reluctantly, the open-source mantra that the most intelligent people don’t all work for you.

Be clear on the outcomes and benefits of involvement, for the company and the people it serves

Millions of people throwing iced water over themselves show us that sometimes the more you ask of people the more they will be willing to give. Do you want to inform people about something? Do you want to consult with them? Do you want to engage and empower them to do something? What’s in it for them?

Prioritise accessibility and equality

Some people are more visible and vocal than others. If these are the only people who get involved in your work, you’ll only ever see a partial picture.

To be sustainable, organisations must be open to not knowing all the answers, not being the experts, and allowing themselves to harness the goodwill of supporters.

Post By: Graeme Reekie expert in nonprofit business strategy – author of The Lasting Difference Toolkit and Making a Lasting Difference: sustaining non-profit organisations and their impact.

Image – Sandor Szmutko / (main image – Speech from Extinction Rebellion activists at gates of downing street, London) / Unsplash

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