The 2017 Women’s March on Washington was, likely, the largest single-day demonstration in recorded American history with more than four million participants. Voter turnout in the 2018 US midterm elections hit a 50-year high. CrossFit and SoulCycle have been positioned as a religious experience for Millennials. Clearly, numerous movements — social, political and cultural — have successfully engaged masses of people in recent years.  


These movements are often decades in the making and coalesce under a particular message, person or moment. And while they may seem to emerge suddenly to outsiders, that’s hardly ever the reality. “The single most important insight of social movement research over the past 40 years is that movements don't come out of nowhere,” Francesca Polletta, professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, has said. While there are numerous intangible factors that contribute to a movement's success — or failure — are there elements that communicators can tap into for their own efforts?


“I have experienced a gradual shift in the sophistication with which large companies are looking to adopt lessons from the outer world, including social movements, as they seek to transform their own organizations,” said Sherry Scott, president of Gagen MacDonald. For instance, she points to more organizations using tools from political campaigns and evolving from managing messagings to “creating the movement.”


Context Partners founder/CEO Charlie Brown argues that corporate purpose often falls short of the concrete goals that propel social movements to success, in a case study for the Harvard Business Review. “A shared purpose is altogether different from a mission statement drafted by a senior committee in a corporate meeting room,” he writes. “It’s something you discover within a community, not something you impose upon one.”  


Gagen MacDonald’s Scott echoes a similar sentiment. Corporate communications teams often focus resources on executive communications, in particular CEOs. Yet, “in reality, rank-and-file employees are most likely to embrace change if they’re prompted on a local level.” She points to research that shows “others like me” are consistently viewed as the most trusted resource. Notably, peer-to-peer influence is often shown to be the most powerful.


“However, few large companies dedicate sufficient time and energy to equipping and inspiring local leaders and influencers to model desired changes,” she added.


Scott also emphasizes that movements must center around a single understanding of the current reality, even if there are competing ideas about the future among the group. This is where companies often fall short, especially when they fail to transparently or openly discuss their challenges with employees — often for fear of depressing morale or breeding disengagement. But without this shared understanding, “it’s impossible for a movement to gain momentum,” she said.

Sharing information with employees not only creates a shared narrative, it also builds trust. According to a 2017 Harvard Business Review piece, when organizations signal to employees that they can't be trusted with information, they also risk undermining employee creativity, innovation and initiative. 

Markers Of Successful Movements 

Movements, however, take many forms so corporations should be wary of forced templates. But there are some reliable markers of successful movements, said Teddy Goff, president of Precision Strategies and former digital director for Obama for America. “One, they make their supporters feel like they are part of a community. Two, they make supporters feel like they are having a tangible and positive effect on the world,” he said, plus they tend to make people feel good on personal, even selfish level.


“Most people aren't looking to add burdens and responsibilities to their lives,” Goff said. “Movements that help people make friends, look cool to their existing friends, feel respected or important, or have a bit of fun by virtue of being a part of them tend to be more successful.”


Another reason businesses are wise to study the tactics around certain movements is they are, increasingly, the target. Mary-Hunter McDonnell, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, has noted a 75% increase in the number of social movements targeting businesses since 2000.  In conjunction, more than half of S&P 500 companies today have committees that monitor and advise around social responsibility or environmental policy — up from 12% in 1990.  “Public perception is that the political field has been captured by corporations,” McDonnell said in an interview with Wharton Magazine.


“I think corporations, too, are realizing that everything they do is to some degree political — who and what they donate to, what partnerships they form, how they pay their workforces or manage their supply chains, how they talk about diversity and inclusion,” Goff said. “And, not for nothing, there's money to be made in doing that stuff strategically, in a way that appeals to whatever their market or customer base is.”


Ultimately, the biggest obstacle for large companies looking to adopt the movement mindset might be yielding control.


“Successful social movements are amorphous and a little unruly,” Gagen MacDonald’s Scott said. “They’re a beautiful mess. They tolerate and encourage ideological diversity and let subgroups of people often work in many directions to try to tackle a common challenge. This is not necessarily how most large incumbent companies are structured.”

Additional reporting by Mark Henricks.