Sunday, April 24, 2011

Dictators, Idols & Brands

The recent events in Tunisia then Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Oman and Libya are writing history in the Middle East region. Popular uprisings that are bringing down long-standing regimes and changing countries in a unique form of awakening are worth observing and drawing key lessons that are not only relevant only for dictators and public idols but also for brands.

Uprising of the Masses
30 years as president of a tight-grip regime, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was pushed out of power after a couple of weeks of street protests. Few days before the start of the events in Egypt, another long-standing autocratic regime was removed from power in Tunisia. Interestingly, these events and popular movements seem very contagious and generating a typical Domino Effect that started somewhere in Tunisia and we don’t know where and when it is going to end. Already popular unrests and manifestations are coming to the surface in several countries in the Middle East and the Gulf region and trying to replicate what was achieved in Tunisia and Egypt, sometimes with the same battle cry.

The believers in global conspiracies are accusing their “usual suspects” and they are happy elaborating on their prophecies and analysis. Although, we should not rule out the influence of well planed manipulation from outside the borders, the phenomenon itself seems more complex than what could be the acts of secret service agents pushing buttons in a dark room somewhere.

We have seen this phenomenon before in different countries and for different reasons and we still do not pretend to know all the secrets of its science. We can just observe and note down “what it is” and “what it is not”.

It Is:
• Massive and powerful.
• A change factor.
• Unstoppable once it has reached its tipping point – and till a key symbolic objective is achieved.
• Rallying different groups of people with different ideas and convictions.
• Self organizing and generates its own unique strategy and unifying objective.
• Somehow seems rational, but it is mostly driven by emotions.

It Is Not:
• Controllable.
• Totally peaceful.
• Self-aware.
• Sure of the outcome.

The recent revolutions were not just about poverty and corruption as these did not happen overnight and will not be solved the second day the regime is changed. These popular uprisings are the results of a Public Opinion pushed by an accumulation of favorable conditions, convenient timing and a spark of a triggering event that will put the streets on fire.

The Public Opinion is about opinions, not about facts. It is a subjective judgment about which people are divided and gathered. Therefore, it plays an important role in the formation and dissolution of the groups that will make the revolution.

The media plays a very important role in forming the Public Opinion and fueling revolutions. Some organizations and countries are possibly using their own media to push the events in a certain direction. Social networks are also playing an increasingly important role in the information and organization side of these popular movements. Public generated information (Videos, Twits, etc.) create a direct access for the people in the street to the forefront of the news.

A mass movement will still need an overarching idea that covers all the personal and individual reasons that push people to risk death in the streets for a cause. This rallying idea that is able to touch the life and imagination of the whole country will be fueled by the dissipating fear and the growing confidence that the regime could be brought down till the events lead to the point of no return. After that it is just a matter of time.

Geography is also part of the “signs” used by the revolution”. The Egyptian uprising did not cover all the cities and regions in the country; it has occupied a symbolic landmark, “Tahreer square”, and that was enough to claim its victory over the regime.

We have witnessed the power of revolutions in the political and national scenes; however, it is rare to witness similar popular uprisings against or in favor of a certain business, company or brand but this does not exclude brands from becoming subjects of public hypes.

In many ways these presidents and their regimes could be considered as brands. They are brands that have committed the capital sin of loosing touch with the public and its interest and therefore staging their own dramatical end.

Revolutions & Tornados
To take a “popular uprising” to the level of a Revolution, a complex system of build-ups and triggers will play their respective roles. Once this system gain in momentum and self-organization we can start talking about a revolution. Any time before reaching that particular level, the movement can fade and die without any significant effects.

From this perspective, a revolution has a lot in common with tornados. The perfect tornado would need a rigorous alignment of favorable conditions (temperature, materials, wind speed, humidity, geography, etc.); similarly a popular uprising needs the coalition of a number of favorable factors to reach the needed momentum and structure.

Another aspect of the analogy between tornados and revolutions is once their formed they gain substantially in power and self-organization and will have definite impact on their environment. However, the results of both tornados and revolutions are far from being fully predictable and controllable.
This time we can almost touch the “Tipping Point” and the “Domino Effect”
The popular movements of the beginning of 2011 in the Arab world are very similar in their dynamics to what happened in the Eastern block in 1989 and the following years. However, these events are providing a whole generation with its first-hand experience with certain public phenomenon that so far we have only knew through books and documentaries.

For the first time, we can almost put a date and a time tag on the Tipping Point of the Tunisian revolution, the Egyptian revolution and possibly on the ones that are brewing right now.

Another interesting phenomenon is the Domino Effect that can trigger and accelerate popular movements in several countries. This effect has happened in 1989 with the consecutive fall of communist regimes and definitely has accelerated the movement, the process and results. In this perspective, the Domino Effect is a contagion of the revolution across borders.

This time The Domino Effect was so obvious and powerful. The Egyptian revolution could not have happened without the Tunisian events, and Egypt is opening the doors and the minds for a whole series of popular protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and possibly other countries to join the list.

Mass Movements & the Utmost Evil
When revolutions are going through the incubation phase, lots of very rational ideas and analysis feed the brewing process, however, when the spark happens and people are in the street, it is irrationality and emotions that almost take over.

When the masses goes against a dictator or a company they don’t go with SWOT analysis and Pros & Cons sheets in their hands but stones and Molotov cocktails. At that point the subject of discontent looses all its credibility and public sympathy and transform to the symbol of “Utmost Evil”. Consequently, the revolution will not accept less than a very symbolic public execution of that symbol.

The opposite can also be true. When people “love” and support a certain political figure, a huge amount of irrationality feeds the process. He or she will suddenly become for followers the great savior with a spotless record and best plan for the followers and the country. This is just another revolution in the making. All the overthrown dictators were one day cheered and claimed as the saviors and the sole leaders of their countries. Loved idols and hated dictators are the two faces of the same coin with time difference.

The masses create their own idols and then “execute” them in the streets to sooth their frustration and disappointment, mostly disappointment from their own lives and their own choices.

Street Hypes & Crowd Psychology
If we look at the business world, massive uprisings are less dramatic but do exist. Brands can face public uprisings in some situations, but usually the public would be limited to the employees or the customers of a certain brand.

Luckily, when it comes to brands, public movements can happen against or in favor of the brand. The public hype that surrounded the launch of Sony PlayStation, the Harry Potter series, the iPhone and the iPad could be classified under the positive mass movement in favor of these brands sales and reputation. Such crowd movements are worth billions in marketing terms. They can create a “Contagion Effect” in favor of the brand market performance and image.

Public hypes and contagion can disturb the equilibrium of a whole category. For instance, the launch of Apple’s iPhone by a company with very limited mobile phone experience has created a typical public hype around the product that has been translated in a phenomenal success for the iPhone and total change in the mobile phone category that was closely shared between brands like Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, LG and SonyEricsson.

The Contagion Effect is very influential aspect of popular uprisings against autocracies and businesses. It can catapult brands to the top of their markets or to oblivion in other circumstances. Tenacious public uprisings can remove a long-standing dictator or create the phenomenal business success of the iPhone.

The revolution, once triggered, gains momentum on the street where the emotional contagion of certain ideas and frustrations bond the participants together forming a more homogeneous group. The members of this group will embrace the ideas and frustrations of each other to form a unified voice leading to group movement. People in the streets will “synchronize” with each other as the group is sending powerful messages through verbal and non-verbal communication. Therefore, protestors in the street will mimic the same movements and the same slogans which will ad to the power of the group and the momentum of the revolution.

Similar hypes or group contagion will happen at a smaller scale in a department store on the first day of seasonal sale; shoppers will be influenced by other buyers’ behavior and start collecting items in an impulsive shopping contest.

People touched by the hype of the street will do anything to get rid of their president and his regime even if they need to keep protesting for months in the streets. They are also ready to spend the night outside Apple stores to be among the first owners of the iPhone or the iPad.

These phenomena could be very powerful tools for both business and politics if they are understood and used to build brands and businesses as well as political systems.

The Masses and Brands
Can we imagine the huge benefits if a brand manage to become a symbol attracting and rallying the masses?

Can brands create or trigger a mass movement in their favor and in the favor of their businesses and companies?

For a brand to be able to trigger a mass movement in its favor it has to become a “Public Icon” and a key player in people’s life and wellbeing. It has to earn a unique reputation as a provider of innovating solutions that can improve people’s life and lifestyle.
Such a position is very difficult to build and therefore, very few brands benefit from this unique “Icon Status”. However, it is an extremely rewarding position to be in for the business and the company that owns the brand.

A brand like Apple is not the first brand in computers or the leading brand in mobile phones but it is an “Iconic Brand” that has high levels of appeal and trust among customers and the general public. With its status, Apple can plan and trigger one of these rare popular movements in favor of its products.

Negative public movements can also arise against brands, and if they reach their own tipping point, they can overthrow the brand from its position in the market and in the mind.

When Toyota was facing its technical problems and image crisis in 2010, thousands of law suits and complaints were filed against the company in several markets. Some of these cases were very serious and include accusations that Toyota vehicles have caused death to many people following accidents related to unintended acceleration. These mini-uprisings against Toyota have caused sure damage and losses to Toyota but they did not build enough momentum to kill the brand. Despite some mistakes in handling the crisis, Toyota has survived with limited damage and it has continued to be a leading world brand.

Other brands could not survive their own crisis and were executed publicly – almost in the street – even if the movements that lead to their fall were not all massive public movements. Lehman Brothers, AIG, Bernard Madoff, Enron, and many others have fall down to be bought out by competitors like some “corporate scrap” or executed by the masses like any hated dictator.

President Obama was brought to the White House by what it looked like an American style popular uprising that was the answer to the Bush administration abuses both on the political and the economic levels.

“Yes We Can” change the president or symbol of an administration or a regime but what is expected from these revolutions is a real and sustainable change for the better of the people’s life beyond just a “re-branding” exercise.

Final Thoughts
These revolutions are marking the history and will leave people with many scores to settle stories to tell and lessons to be taken even by businesses and brands. Obviously what brands need to learn form all this is how to become the subject of admiration and love by the masses and to avoid at any price being overthrown or executed like hated dictators.

The path for this kind of fate is never guaranteed but certain elements were proven to provide much bigger chances to success:
1. A clear Brand Vision.
2. An inspiring Mission.
3. A tangible Promise that is fulfilled every time and time after time.
4. A close Relationship with consumers that always maintained and rekindled by innovative products and genuine customer care.
5. Continuous reinvention of the brand and the company to keep pace with the evolving times.

Dealing with the masses is very exciting but also very risky and dangerous. It is like having an elephant as a pet. You can have a long interesting relationship with it but one day you could be crushed in a second and for the very impulsive reasons.

Good politicians and smart brands will know how to deal with their constituencies for all the thrill and benefits of being admired and followed by the masses; more importantly the smartest ones should know how to take the honorable exit before things goes totally out of control.

Jean-Claude Saade

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