What brands can learn from the women’s march movement

March 08, 2017 | Jeff Macdonald

The Women’s March was one of the biggest global movements of recent years. It is estimated that 5 million people marched across 17 different countries to show their support for basic human rights – freedom, equality, justice and personal security – which are increasingly under threat across different areas of people’s lives. It hasn’t stopped there – the movement is maintaining its momentum. With 1.3 million hashtags posted to date and growing everyday, the conversation is very much alive with its roadmap of 10 Actions in 100 Days, including the call for a day of action (“A Day Without A Woman”) to support  International Women’s Day on 8th March. The effectiveness of such a mass follow up will be revealed in the coming months as actions continue. Nevertheless, the impact of the movement to date provides many useful lessons for organizations or brands looking to engage people at scale.

It is incredible to think that this all started from just a single concerned person on Facebook (a retired grandmother in Hawaii). Some of the success of the movement is clearly down to the galvanizing effect that Trump’s election campaign had on raising awareness of the threat to the human rights issues at the heart of their agenda. Additionally, there is now a very visible enemy to rally against. However, there are other fundamental factors that have driven the movement’s success. It understands that change is driven by action and that action (human behavior) is influenced by 2 factors:

  1. How motivated am I to do this, or do I WANT to do it?
  2. How easy is it for me to do this, or CAN I do it?

Both factors have an influence on our behavior at a personal, social and structural level. The Women’s March Movement has successfully influenced and encouraged its community behavior at all three levels. As brands increasingly become involved in or create campaigns focused on social issues, there is much that they can learn from the huge reach and depth of engagement generated by this particular movement.


1. Movements are the organizational expression of a shared personal belief

You need to be clear about the core human value used to inspire individuals to take action.  Despite the complex mix of issues – including gender, race, economics, age, health and representation – what the leaders of the movement did well was to define the core issue that they were fighting at the most fundamental human level. This was about social (or human) rights – an issue that matters to many (hopefully all) people. At the heart of this is a fight against the exclusion and divisions which pose an ever increasing threat to our world, and the livelihoods of minorities in particular.

From the title of the initial action – a “March For All” – to the lengths that the leaders of the movement went to make it clear that this was a movement for all (black women, LGBT women, disabled women, girls as the next generation AND men and boys), it was clear that this community was living up to its core beliefs and values. The movement grew its potential scale during this time by incorporating and welcoming many different groups. By taking care to clarify the specific goals and actions of the movement, they were able to structure their fight in a way that delivered scale (inclusion of many) but with ‘chunk sized’ deliverables. Rather than boiling an ocean, they were tackling lake sized challenges.

what brands can learn from the women's march

This is an approach that others have successfully adopted, most notably Ben & Jerry’s, whose broad fight for Social Justice addresses the different pillars of the environment, people and communities, economic and peace. Furthermore,  individual campaigns have tackled specific fights such as climate change, marriage equality and political lobbying. Social Justice is a very clear and strong ideal and identity for people to buy into. It allows communities to get involved in supporting a wide range of causes that are relevant to their core shared belief.

Both these examples demonstrate that if you build your movement on large scale, fundamental human values many people will be personally motivated and build scale for impact.

2. Make it easy for individuals to contribute in significant ways

Low cost of entry, high level of commitment. Joining a social fight in a significant way can seem a pretty daunting task to most people. To make a real commitment (beyond small tokenism) suggests real effort – both literally and emotionally. So, getting the balance right is not easy. We want to encourage actions with sufficient weight to signal a strength of feeling and support that are able to have an impact on those we want to sit up and take notice, without these actions being so onerous or tough that they are never performed. It is best to make it ‘easy’ for those people whose behavior we want to influence. The actions that the Women’s March required came with lots of support, advice and tools to make it easier to put them into practice. These ease-of-use elements included simple templates to fill-in to create content, existing posts that could simply be re-posted, instructions for how to organize transport to marches, etc.

what brands can learn from the women's march

Whilst the actions were often simple to execute, they were all significant in their impact as they were very clear and public expressions of people’s support for the movement and anger at the issues and people they were demonstrating against. Whether participants created posts on social media or joined the physical marches, they are publicly committed to the cause. These tangible and visible actions were performances that, when delivered by 5 million people, were a clear sign of strength of feeling and commitment.

The movement made it easy for people to participate on a personal level, and to realize that they could do it. The low cost of entry made it easy for as many people as possible to join the fight.


3. The most solid and authentic foundations for a movement are found at a local social level

Look for opportunities to build from existing community-based groups and leverage their existing social ties. The Women’s March movement was not created by a big launch and top-down approach. Instead, it was built bottom-up, around real people and their existing grassroots communities. This gave the movement a huge amount of authenticity but also provided a large amount of the social motivation and influence which drove so much of the action. As people, we place significant value on our social ties with one another. Our desire to be part of the group – and to be seen to contribute positively to that group by supporting its values and the people within it – means that peer pressure can be even more powerful than personal motivation. We do not want to let others down. If they are showing commitment, we feel that we must do so as well. In the post-Trump world many have expressed their point of view solely via social media.  As members of their social group began to step forward and make commitments to a ‘point of action’ by joining the march, the rest of that group felt compelled by social pressure to do so as well. There was often a very powerful social network multiplier at work.

This is a key lesson for building movements at scale. If you want to influence individuals, the most powerful way to do so may be to influence their social network. It creates a situation where at a social level, many people feel compelled to say “I want to do this”.

4. We are creatures of habit, so make it fit around my existing life and its social structure

Build the movement and activities around existing social infrastructure and habits. Using local groups and movements as the foundation for the organization made it easy (and natural) for the Women’s March to generate actions. The movement was built around existing relationships and the associated social infrastructure. There was a very friendly, open and positive vibe to the movement. Members could largely continue operating within existing local groups, now simply connected to a bigger network of activists who shared common values and concerns at the broader level. Actions took place at a local level, involving people they would already know and trust. Recruiting new people to the movement was conducted through known local networks and figureheads. Strong existing social bonds and relationships were maintained, creating a real sense of warmth and familiarity to this movement that made it feel very easy and comfortable for people to join in and participate.

People already have strong existing social ties and habits that are a big part of their lives. Use these and make it easy for people to realize they can contribute to the cause within the bounds of their existing, natural behaviours.


5. Reward people for the right behaviors

Incentives always work. The ‘carrot and stick’ approach may seem somewhat old fashioned but it still works in today’s world. Applying a layer of gamification, especially linked to social networks and apps, can be a great way to drive the desired behaviors and actions. Rewards plus fun can be a strong combination. Interestingly, to date, it hasn’t been a big feature of the Women’s March Movement but maybe that’s simply a reflection of the strength of feelings already at work. The personal and social motivations are so strong they have not been needed. But maybe if the momentum slows, it could be a useful additional element to add to the other strategies. There may come a time when they need to give their community more reasons to want to participate in the specific actions yet to happen.

6. Facebook has uses beyond the sharing of funny animal videos

what brands can learn from the women's march

Use the scale and power of digital social networks. At a structural level, the movement made it easy for the community to connect, organize and take action by using simple, familiar channels and tools. Facebook (including Facebook Events) and Twitter were the primary tools, supported by an app that, as well as providing a portal to Facebook and Twitter, included all the basic information on the movement (the goals, details on the actions, a timetable of events, partners, how to donate, etc.). In the modern world of movements, digital social technology has transformed the ability of people to organize and act at scale. As this example shows, one grandmother in Hawaii supported by a Facebook based infrastructure can create a lot of impact!


The fundamental variables to a successful movement can be summed up in a very simple equation: more people x more actions = more impact. This seems like a very rational equation but it is in fact about applying human logic to find the optimal solution. Designing your movement in such a way that you maximize the motivation to participate and minimize the barriers to entry will increase the likelihood of success. By deploying human sense, the Women’s March Movement created a movement that people wanted to be part of and could easily support through meaningful actions.

So, to maximize engagement at scale for your social purpose initiatives, consider the following checklist to give your campaign enough human relevance to motivate and inspire action from the people at the heart of your movement:

  1. What is the fundamental human belief that motivates people at a personal level?
  2. Are you making it easy for individuals to take action?
  3. Are you using the strength of existing social ties to motivate people to action?
  4. What existing social infrastructures and habits can you build upon?
  5. Are you incentivizing people to engage in the desired behaviors?
  6. How do you design the environment to make it easy for people to take actions?

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