Brains on Fire

By: Geno Church




There has been more than enough written on the transformation that the digital age has brought with it.  But as the authors of Brains on Fire tell us, perhaps we’ve missed the point. Because it’s no longer a B2C and B2B world, it’s a P2P world.  The Internet revolution, as it turns out, is not about technology and social networks, it’s about people. 

And while technology has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, people haven’t.  They still rely on the guy down the street to recommend a good gardener. Or depend on the lady next door to recommend a nice restaurant downtown. You see, as our world has gotten a whole lot larger, it has also gotten a whole lot smaller at the same time. This is a book about what to do when the “people” have all the power. Again.

1.  Movements vs. Campaigns

In a world where the “people” hold all the power, movements are much more powerful than campaigns.  Here’s how the authors define what a movement is:

A movement elevates and empowers people to unite a community around a common cause, passion, company, brand or organisation.

However, with many marketers throwing this word around these days, it’s easy to get confused. So here is your field guide about how to spot the difference between a movement and a campaign:

  • If it has a beginning and an end, it’s a campaign, not a movement. Movements continue on as long as kindred spirits are around to participate.
  • If you are sitting in a meeting and the vocabulary sounds like you have landed in the middle of a strategy session during World War II, you are in a campaign meeting. Movements feel more like you landed in the middle of an evangelical sermon. Words like passion, love and inspiration get used.
  • If language you hear is dry and detached, you are listening to somebody talk about a campaign. In movements, people have a hard time separating the “me” from the equation. If you’ve ever been to Toronto, you’ve likely heard somebody say “this is the year we are going to make the playoffs”, even though they clearly never have, or never will, play professional hockey.

Lastly, and most importantly, campaigns are when you talk about yourself. Movements are when other people talk about you

It may be hard to spot the difference between a campaign and a movement, but make no mistake - they are different animals and they produce significantly different results. Let’s move on to see how you start making a movement happen.

2.  Movements aren’t about the product, they are about passion. Movements start with the first conversation.  Movements have inspirational leadership

At first, you are going to have a lot of trouble accepting that you can’t create a movement around a product or a service. You need to create a movement around something people are passionate about. And that passion has to be both internal and external, not just external. Here’s why. Passion is contagious. If your entire company wakes up every morning with a fire under them because they are passionate about what they do, you literally can’t prevent it from spreading outside of your proverbial four walls.

So how do you create that passion?

First, you don’t create it, you find it. You can’t just sit in a boardroom with your top executives and decide that your company is now going to be passionate about something. You need to go out, talk to your employees and customers and find out what they are already passionate about.

At this point, it’s quality insight that you are after, not quantity. Resist the urge to have focus groups and marketplace studies - you’ll rarely uncover passion in those settings. Instead, consider grabbing a cup of coffee with an employee. Find out what keeps them up at night, and what gets them out of bed in the morning. Over time it will become crystal clear what connects what your company does to the lives of the people you serve.

Second, this passion isn’t something that magically appears out of thin air - movements start with the very first conversation. These first conversations create your first passionate advocates, and they are critical to your success. Listen to them very closely, and then give them whatever they need in order to help spread the word about your organisation.

Third, movements have inspirational leadership. However, the leadership doesn’t come from within your organisation - it comes from your community. These can be paid or non-paid positions, and the people you choose should be knowledgable about your space and your organisation. But most importantly, to steal a turn of phrase from Spinal Tap, they need to have a passion dial that goes to 11. Rock on.

3.  In order to create a movement where the leaders take ownership, you need to create a barrier to entry.

Surprisingly, one of the best ways to grow your movement is to make a conscious effort to keep people out. Incentivising people to join your movement by giving away “free stuff” is most likely a recipe for disaster.

It’s pretty easy to fall into this trap, because we love large numbers. It just feels better to have 1,000 people to take our free t-shirt and stress ball, than to have 10 people sign up and be 100% committed to the cause. But, if we are to learn from the movements that Geno and his gang have been involved in, we’ll take quality over quantity any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

One of the best ways to create a barrier to entry is to only allow a person to join through another member of the community. The Jehovah’s Witness organisation is incredible at this. As you might know, when you are visited by their recruiters, they always show up in pairs of two. The second time they come, there will be one person you know, and another that wasn’t there the first time. They repeat this process 4 times so that by the time you are officially in the community, you know at least 4 people.  Are you likely to come back if you already know some people in the movement? Of course you are.

This also creates a sense of ownership in the group. When you put your community members in charge of “who gets in”, they will treat that responsibility with great care. They not only spread the word on behalf of your community, they become stewards of the community itself. 

4.  Movements empower people with knowledge and make their advocates feel like rockstars.

How do you make people who already love you, love you even more? You need to empower them with information. The people who love you want even more information than you ever thought possible. All those things that make your employees eyes glaze over - the history of the company, the quirky stories about your beginnings - these are what creates an even deeper bond with them, and encourage them to share even more. 

What the people do with this knowledge is the critical part. A company that has done this better than anybody else is Fiskars, a company that makes hundreds of products, including those iconic orange handled scissors that almost every home has in their kitchen. They created a movement with scrapbookers who were passionate about using Fiskars’ products while doing their crafts. Here are a few things you can learn from them:

  • Fiskars brings their lead ambassadors (who call themselves the Fiskateers) to their headquarters in Madison to immerse them in the culture of the business. To the Fiskateers, this is like going to scrapbooking Mecca. They share almost everything with them, making them feel even closer to the brand. 
  • Fiskars pays the lead Fiskateers.  This is where things might get a little controversial. You see, many people would tell you that this is “inauthentic”. I say do what works.  The critical part is that they were passionate about the brand before they were lead ambassadors.
  • Fiskars gives these lead ambassadors actual responsibilities, with specific instructions on how often they have to blog and hold community events. Just remember that you are not there to edit or censor what they write, but to be there as a support mechanism to get them whatever information they need to write about their passions. The conservative among us would be fearful that they might say bad things about the company. But as Fiskars’ VP of Brand Marketing, Jay Gillespie puts it, “It’s ok to hear the bad things, because now you are hearing them and can fix them”.

Nobody said that creating a movement was easy.

6.  Cultivating closeness fuels results

None of this would mean anything unless it it made a difference to the bottom line - whether that bottom line is profits, saving the whales or whatever your cause may be. Fortunately, movements get results. Results that you couldn’t even imagine when you first launch a program like this.

Advertising and traditional marketing is a one-way street, with little or no interaction between the consumer and the company.  That is a shame, because customers are good for a lot more than just buying stuff from you. 

This is obvious to Hermann Simon, who is the author of Hidden Champions of the 21st Century, which is considered by many to be the Good to Great of the mid-market. The companies he profiles in his book are #1 or #2 in their marketplace (Jack Welch would be proud), have less than $1 billion in revenues, and are generally not very well known. He found a couple of very interesting things in his study:

  • 88% insanely successful companies have an unusually high percentage of their employees having customer contact. In fact, these companies have about, on average, 5 times the amount of customer contact than larger companies do.
  • Staying close to your most demanding customers compels performance and innovation. This leads to the ability to charge higher prices and earn higher margins.

One thing is for sure - this isn’t an industry like traditional advertising where your return on investment lives in a fairly narrow band, 19 times out of 20. However, for those who are willing to put in the work and reap the benefits, creating a movement looks like a real opportunity to create some outsized returns for your company. Making money and making a difference in your customers lives, it seems, goes hand in hand.


If you are ready to take a good long look at overturning some of your traditional practices, and are willing to put in the legwork to create a movement, this book is for you.