Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Can Gay Marriage Help Your Brand? (part 1)

In the wake of President Obama’s victory last week, two other sets of election results received somewhat less discussion.  Namely, Colorado and Washington voters approved a referendum in favor of recreational marijuana use and voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington voted in favor of same-sex marriage.

While the pundits have, well, pundited about the votes, I don’t wish to rehash arguments for or against any of them (Disclosure: I strongly favor same-sex marriage and honestly don’t know what to think about legalizing marijuana).  Instead, I find the marketing implications of the votes more interesting.  

To the point: both sets of votes transpired not as one-off issues, but actually as parts of long-term strategic thinking and attitude changing campaigns from organizations with broader agendas.

In this post, I’d like to show how a single point-in-time vote fits into a broader issue.  In the next, I’d like to discuss how even marketers focused on quarterly or monthly results can benefit from this kind of broad-scale thinking.

In short, successful not-for-profit organizations with a social agenda use a series of universally understood but individual actions to promote a broader agenda.  These actions consist of votes or legislation that provide a clear choice for supporters or detractors.  In other words, legalizing pot or same-sex marriage stand on their own, but also fit within broader contexts.  In the past few years, for instance, the discussion on marijuana has moved from medical use (now legal in 17 states and DC) to the more recent votes for outright legalization.

Same-sex marriage presents a clearer case study, one that we could probably trace back to the 1969 Stonewall Riots.  As a group, gays have been seeking not merely civil rights, I’d argue, but full integration with society as openly gay men and women.  However, try putting “Full Integration with Society as Openly Gay Men and Women” on a bumper sticker.  You’d need have to drive a Hummer H1.

In all seriousness, the strategists behind the gay rights movement understand that a) “civil rights” and “social integration” remain ambiguous terms and b) that even sympathetic citizens cannot always make the jump all at once.  They’ve created a series of waypoints to make the journey more clear and more meaningful.

Enter gay marriage.  While “civil rights” or “social integration” can mean many things, marriage means only one thing: a lifetime of fighting, regret and accusations over who uses more of the bed an ironclad civil contract.  For or against it, people can visualize it clearly and consistently.  It means the same thing in Alabama as it does in Vermont.  Or, for that matter, it means the same thing in America as it does in Sweden or Saudi Arabia.

While the gay rights folks may have a broad goal in mind, they have made sure to approach that goal in discrete steps, with such points as addressing anti-gay bias in the workplace, designating anti-gay violence as a hate crime, permitting civil unions and, most recently, marriage.  I have no idea what comes next, but I suspect someone at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation or Lambda Legal does.  And, you can bet, they have found a way to crystalize the issue into a simple for-or-against symbol that anyone can understand.

Accordingly, those of you who work in the not-for-profit sector should think about whether your issue communicates as clearly as “gay marriage” or “legalizing marijuana” does.  If, for instance, you support ending cruelty towards animals, do you know what the voting public considers cruelty to be?  If so, can you articulate steps towards a broader goal, such as toughening penalties for animal abusers or regulating pet stores?  What steps will animal lovers flock to first?  What comes next?

Creating this series of steps with clear advancement from one to the next will make the differene between fighting the good fight and advancing the cause.

We’ll explore how this kind of do-gooder thinking can help for-profit businesses next, but if you’ve got any ideas for not-for-profits, please share below.

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