May 8, 2011

How to Market an Unpopular Cause

How do you market an unpopular cause?

In a world crowded with attention-worthy causes, why do some get the backing of the international community, while others languish? This good question is being asked by the recipients of this year’s Hope Fellowship, a fund established by the National Albanian American Council to strengthen the role of women in policy and decision-making in the Balkans. They are seeking recognition for their largely unrecognized country, Kosovo, which split off from Serbia and declared independence in 2008.  In order to help them in an upcoming training session, I went looking for new models that might help structure the challenge of making their so-far-unpopular country more widely understood in the European Union and beyond.

There are no easy models or quick fixes for a people seeking to establish a legitimate identity among other nations, as Kurds and Palestinians well know. And an over focus on media and message dissemination (should we have a Facebook page? How many radio stations?) while important, is no replacement for the deeper work of developing a national identity story that resonates in international channels.

While seeking models, I found two excellent books that shed light on how embattled causes get attention from the international community. Although they are both specific to politics, they offer valuable insights for any organization seeking to make an impact on another.The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media and International Activisim by
Clifford Bob has been highly regarded since its publication in 2005.

Bob seeks to answer the question: “How do a few political movements challenging Third World states become global causes célèbres, whereas most remain isolated and obscure? He answers answers by looking through the dual lens of marketing and globalization. The marketing perspective, as he puts it, “denies that there is a meritocracy of suffering,” in which NGO backing and international sympathy lie—as we would hope—with the best causes. Instead, “local movements insistently court overseas backing, and their promotional strategies count.”

Ultimately, his close studies of Nigeria’s Ogoni Movement and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico lead him to conclude that the decision of a potential advocate to back a particular rebel group stems from how closely the following attributes of each are aligned:

  • substantive goals
  • customary tactics
  • ethical precepts
  • cultural attitudes, and
  • organizational needs

As Bob explains, “the greater the match between transnational actor and local movement on these five attributes, the greater the likelihood of adoption.” Actors seeking recognition from others will benefit from learning to articulate not only their own identity in these five terms, but –crucially–those of the party they seek to influence. Successful groups gain from their ability to frame their own causes in terms of the concerns of others, and to provide an identity narrative that implies this alignment.

Francesca Polletta takes on a similar set of issues in It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics through her exploration of how stories help, and hurt, fledgling social and political movements.

Her many examples can help both organizations themselves,and communication professionals seeking to incorporate storytelling into an organizational repertoire, understand more deeply how the cultural, rhetorical and symbolic elements impact internal decision-making, and how outsiders perceive an organization.

Polletta’s overriding conclusion is that narratives are powerful because they do not provide conclusive answers and are therefore open to multiple interpretations. Clearly, this means that audiences who might otherwise not find common ground may find a way to work together toward a common purpose. It also means that storytelling is not productive in all instances. The flip side of our tendency to hear stories as more authentic expressions than other rhetorical forms also means that we hear them as not authoritative, and not really true in the same way that reasoned facts are.

Narrative’s capacity to produce multiple meanings, to elide forms of authority and to hold opposites in productive tension all make it a useful rhetorical tool with which to question the existing distribution of power. Again, narrative has that power because we expect ambiguity in stories….But this view may also account for a popular ambivalence about narrative . Stories are seen as authentic but also artful…

Polletta’s conclusion is also a version of challenge for organizations seeking to function in the global mainstream. Whether underdog political movements or executives, we are all grounded in the cultural preference for certainty and for the stylistics of reason and logic, not narrative.  We have to learn to appreciate the ways in which narrative conveys different kinds of knowledge than argument, and why and when it effectively helps our causes.

Both Bob and Polletta underline the degree to which organizational identity is actually a social construction, created in dynamic circumstances by many actors. Marketing an as yet unheard, or even disliked entity, can take advantage of this recognition by loosely steering both small stories and meta-narratives in ways that work with the existing currents in this environment.


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