Revolution As Challenger Brand

May 21, 2012 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Four Lessons From the Egyptian Revolution

Cultural barriers and physical distance too often reduce events like the Egyptian Revolution to abstractions for us, but there are important lessons here for astute marketers of challenger brands. That’s what I gleaned from a talk given the other night by Waleed Rashed, one of the co-founders of the April 6 Youth Movement held in 2008 and a prominent participant in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Egypt in 2011.

Revolutionary, Waleed Rashed with Mike Sullivan Revolutionary, Waleed Rashed with Mike Sullivan

Few brands bear the mighty burden of human rights. Our lives don’t hang in the balance with corporate defeat. Yet, it is for these very reasons that the lessons delivered by the Egyptian campaign of civil resistance are particularly relevant. A former banker with a background in marketing, Waleed shared his story through a familiar lens. And, while his English is still a work in progress his story unfolded like a textbook case study for smart marketing communications. Of the many lessons, four stand out.

LESSON ONE: NO MEDIUM IS A SAVIOR. The popular American press characterizes the Egyptian Revolution as yet another big score for FaceBook. Perhaps that’s to be expected from a perspective unavoidably biased by the all-consuming presence of the brand in American culture. But, featuring FaceBook as hero is sadly reductive given the totality of the effort, the strategic creativity of the organizers, and their passionate persistence. FaceBook offered a liberating and vital medium for catalyzing the April 6 Movement. But, the Revolution didn’t begin online and, contrary to popularized beliefs, the Internet wasn’t the activating medium. The Revolution began in the hearts of the people where it had been boiling for three decades under the pressure of a despot’s rule.

Before I go further, a little context is in order. There are roughly 80 million people in Egypt, and 30 percent of them cannot read or write their own names. Much of the population is functionally illiterate, thanks in large part to the tyrannical 30-year rule of the Mubarak Regime. It’s no surprise then that U.S. per person PC ownership is to this day 92 times greater than Egypt’s. In fact, less than four percent of the populationeven had a personal computer in 2008, let alone access to FaceBook. Waleed and his well-educated young compatriots connected and conspired through a FaceBook group in the early going, but pulling the general population into the discussion required something social media couldn’t deliver in Cairo: broad reach. The options were few due to the state’s control of traditional media, a condition that compounded the challenge. The early efforts of the clandestine opposition were faced with the formidable task of reversing the nervous status quo sentiments created by a ceaseless churning of the Mubarak propaganda machine.

LESSON TWO: INSIGHTS AREN’T JUST FOR MESSAGING. The persistent durability of Marshal McLuhan’s 1964 observation that “the medium is the message” was showcased as word of an impending rebellion spread through Cairo in the months leading to the April 6 Movement. The organizers needed a medium capable of spreading a message and fostering exponential sharing. It had to carry an audio broadcast due to high illiteracy, and it had to support the need for message repetition. The organizers turned to Cairo’s 80,000 taxi cab drivers. Well known for their penchant for chatter and the reliability of their information, cab drivers were the perfect medium for the message. While Waleed shared several similarly insightful guerrilla tactics, the cabbies were clearly the pivotal medium in the strategy. The challenge, however, was getting them to talk. At least about revolution. In Egypt, there was a saying during the Mubarak era that those who talk politics tend to “disappear on the other side of the sun.”

LESSON THREE: UNDERSTAND THE LIMITATIONS OF MEDIA. If you had tried asking a cabbie to spread the word of Revolution in Mubaruk’s Cairo you’d get a quick ride to the police station. So the organizers created a new way to use an old medium. They spread out across Cairo riding in the backs of cabs speaking into their cell phones about the date and place of the protest. They spoke in hushed tones just loud enough for drivers to overhear. Day after day they worked this process until around day 30 when Waleed says he began hearing the news back from cabbies. Data-driven metrics be damned, there’s nothing quite like direct feedback from another human being to confirm success.

LESSON FOUR: ASSUME YOU DON’T KNOW, BECAUSE YOU DON’T. In a recent National Times column, I read the following: “You’re born in a cage, and you’ll stay in it because there’ll always be a gap between your experiences and the words you have to describe them. More, you’ll only ever be able to occupy one skull – you’ll never completely know what it’s like to think or feel like somebody else.”

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Egyptian Revolution for me is the potent reminder that it is our very nature to superimpose our own reality on others, believing as we do that all share our sovereign view. I was surprised to learn there even was other media used by the movement, let alone other media used to incite activation. I had been over-exposed to U.S. media stories casting Facebook as savior to an oppressed people. A little deeper understanding of Egyptian culture, and the limitations of both their media and the audience provide important perspective for evaluating the strategy. Powerful insights are required for creating smart communications strategies, and this is no less important for corporate marketers than it is for revolutionaries.

The resulting defeat of a regime resourced with an embarrassment of riches by a scrappy young group of revolutionaries is perhaps the best demonstration I’ve yet seen of the challenger brand credo: “Don’t outspend your competitors, out-think them.”


(c) 2012 LOOMIS
April 6 Youth Movementchallengerchallenger brandEgyptEgyptian revolutionmarketingMubarakWaleed Rashed

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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