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When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage recently, it  marked an astounding turnaround in public opinion in a short time.  According to Gallup, in 2005-2006, 59% of Americans thought gay marriage should not be legally valid, and 37% were in favor.  By 2013, 53% of Americans favored legalized gay marriage, and 45% were against.

As I stepped back from the heated rhetoric and the emotions that erupted following the court’s ruling, I couldn’t help but marvel at this dramatic swing in public opinion. What changed so many minds so quickly?  As Marc Solomon, National Campaign Director of Freedom to Marry recently wrote, there were many elements to winning the Same Sex Marriage battle, ranging from legal strategy to political alliances and more.  What stood out to me most, however, was some masterful positioning and storytelling.  The Freedom to Marry team overcame very deeply-held beliefs and powerful opposition, and the way they did it offers some valuable lessons, not just for political and social activists, but for marketers too.  Here are 3 things you can take away from the success of the Marriage Equality campaign.


1. Focus on Values.

According to Solomon:  “Tapping into people’s fundamental values in making the case is essential. We showed straight America why same-sex couples want to marry — out of profound love and commitment (the same reasons they want to!). We thus helped them see that supporting marriage for same-sex couples syncs up with their own deep-seated values of the Golden Rule — treating others the way you’d want to be treated.”

Smart marketers take the time and put in the work to really understand what motivates their intended audience.  At a gut level, what do customers value that you can deliver on?  Too often, brands focus more on talking about what they do vs. talking about what they do for customers.  Connect with that core value and talk about how you promote and advance that value.  Customers will listen, and open their minds to your brand.


2. Create empathy

To support their cause, the movement tapped into personal stories of people who had been denied very basic, and very human desires. They used every medium possible to recount stories of people unable to visit terminally-ill loved ones in hospitals.  Couples unable to adopt or share legal custody of children.  Couples unable to receive social security benefits, to attend funerals.  The human side of these stories is universal, powerful and deeply emotional.  We have great empathy for these people and their struggles.  When these personal issues are dramatized, many people who were wavering or even against gay marriage were forced to stop and reconsider their positions.

As a marketer, ask yourself if you are creating empathy for your brand with your audience.  Are you making it easy for people to know you’re on their side?  That you understand their plight and genuinely care about helping them solve a problem?  Or do you mostly talk about your products and features, and how fantastic your company is?


3. Be The Underdog

Did you happen to see this video of a first-grader waving a rainbow flag at a street preacher that went viral recently?

It was a metaphor for how the Same-Sex marriage movement framed the debate with its opponents.  On one side is a gentle, loving, quiet and steadfast person, facing off against a loud, self-righteous, aggressive, and fear-mongering preacher.  Who do you think most people are rooting for?

The odds were always stacked against the Same-Sex marriage movement.  And that’s exactly what played in their favor.  As a culture, we are predisposed to root for underdogs.  Think The American Revolution, the “Miracle On Ice” in Olympic Hockey.  Barack Obama.  We desperately want to believe that the little guy CAN win, no matter what the odds.  And when a few voices start to unite behind an underdog, it excites, inspires and gains momentum in a way that can be hard to stop.

The Same-Sex marriage movement artfully told their story about protecting the everyday little guys – decent, law-abiding, loving couples.  The opponents of gay marriage often tapped into fear, hellfire and brimstone-style, focusing on the need to protect their religious institutions, biblical interpretations, and traditions from moral decay.   \(Or at least that’s what proponents of same-sex marriage often made it look like.)  The underdog’s unlikely victory was a much more compelling story than preventing the powerful, entrenched side from losing.

If your brand can find a way to align with an underdog that needs a chance, you have created a huge opportunity for your brand.  Being #1 is grossly overrated.  Once something becomes a powerful incumbent, people are just waiting for it to be toppled from its perch.   The longer the odds, the more compelling your brand’s story is.

Let us know what you think in the comments, or contact us to see how we can help your brand tell a more engaging story.

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