How Social Media Turned a Brand Into a Revolution

As protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square faced off against government forces, they were prepared with this Facebook lesson from supporters in Tunisia: “Advice to the youth of Egypt: Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas.”

This exchange (as reported by the New York Times) was part of a remarkable two-year social media collaboration that began with bloggers calling for labor strikes and resulted in an energetic youth movement that is toppling dictators.

And I can’t help but wonder in a very public way, was I wrong?

Just a few months ago, I declared in “Is Social Media Creating a Generation of Cowards?” that I agreed with Malcom Gladwell’s now famous contention that “the revolution will not be tweeted.” He compared the heroic activism of the Civil Rights Movement to the “slacktivism” of today’s Facebook culture where involvement ends at “liking” a page. He boldly stated — and I agreed — that the weak connections and lack of organizational structure on the social web was unlikely to enable radical social change.

Was I wrong?

Yes, I was.  I had completely missed a big idea that had nothing to do with organizational dynamics:  Social media can be used to build and ignite a brand — even when the product is a political revolution!  In fact, marketing has played an extremely important role in the shifting Arab political landscape.

Like the rest of the world, I was fascinated by the courage and discipline of the youth movement in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond.  I’ve read as much as I could consume and although I do not have the benefit of a first-hand experience with the situation, I think that without question, social media enabled the movement, united protesters, and kept the revolutionaries one step ahead of the government counter-measures.

If you have any doubt about the courage displayed by the protesters or the critical role of Facebook and Twitter, click on the image above and watch a short video about the “Facebook Flat” in Cairo.

A branded revolution

While the protesters relied on classic tactics of nonviolent resistance, they also owe their success to marketing savvy  borrowed from Silicon Valley.

The mastermind of the movement was Wael Ghonim, a 31-year-old Google marketing executive. Inspired by bloggers such as Ahmed Maher, Ghonim had little experience in politics but an intense dislike for the abusive Egyptian police. While the underground revolution had actually been fomenting since 2005, it needed a business perspective to get off the ground.

“I worked in marketing,” he said. “And I knew that if you build a brand you can get people to trust the brand.”

The marketer’s first campaign was a Facebook group called We Are All Khalid Said, after a young Egyptian who was beaten to death by police.

Ghonim filled the site with video clips and newspaper articles about police violence. He repeatedly hammered home a simple and memorable brand message: “This is your country.”

Engaging the “customers”

He eventually attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to the site and the “brand” actively engaged with them. For example, when organizers planned a “day of silence” in the Cairo streets, he polled users on what color shirts they should all wear — black or white. Finally, after the Tunisian revolution on Jan. 14, Ghonim used the Facebook site to mobilize support for a public protest. He asked for a pledge from 50,000 followers to turn out in protest. More than 100,000 signed up.

“I have never seen a revolution that was pre-announced before,” he said.  Or, another way to look at it: He was launching the brand.

When a protest started to become a movement, best practices were shared via Facebook from counterparts in Tunisia and Serbia.  Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades … primarily over social media platforms like the April 6 Movement Facebook page and Twitter.

On February 1, 2011 (the day the Internet was turned back on), Egypt gained 100,000 new Facebook users.

Al-Jazeera, a news channel with an agenda, added drama and emotion to the brand by broadcasting heroic stories and swelling theme songs. The revolution became an ongoing music video.

Entering new markets

Like all popular brands, this is already reaching into new markets like Libya.  Where could it go next to reach new customers?  This entry from the Youth Movement Facebook page may provide a clue:

So that’s the story of how I was wrong … and so is Gladwell because he missed this point, too.  We were both looking at historical events and organizational dynamics, not realizing that the new social media business models can be applied to a wide variety of human activities, even something as unlikely and startling as toppling a dictatorship.

I realize my characterization of this revolution as a “brand” is unorthodox and I don’t want to come across as disrespectful in any way.  I would never diminish the truly heroic personal efforts and sacrifices made in the face of real danger.

But I also think it’s important to recognize these new communication and societal dynamics and how social media will be used in ways we could never imagine.  Truly, the revolution is just beginning.  For all of us.

Lead illustration: This photo of Cairo’s Tahrir Square was taken by Tara Todras of the Associated Press and appeared in online version of the the New York Times

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  • Mark,

    Very insightful post. My favorite comment was your summary, “It’s important to recognize these new communication and societal dynamics and how social media will be used in ways we could never imagine.”

    It is important to realize that social media is it’s infancy here. It’s OK to experiment. It’s OK to not be an expert. It’s OK to realize you need help figuring how social fits into your own plans. There is still a lot to figure out.

    I also like the tie in to the important of realizing the social has more power when it is used in conjunction with a brand. If what you are talking about is not aligned with what you are actually doing, I doubt you will have the same effect.

    Thanks for the great Sunday thoughts and looking forward to talking more at SXSW.


  • Thanks, Josh. I am the first to claim that I am NOT an expert and this just goes to show how much I have yet to learn! This was an amazing world event truly enabled by social media.

  • Interesting take on the revolution in Egypt. I agree and disagree.
    I agree that social media helped carry the voice of those opposed to the regime. I disagree that Google’s Ghonim or that Facebook actually helped bring about the change we saw happening live on our TVs. Let’s not forget that the Egyptian government cut off all internet access as early as the 28th Jan (Mubarak only left power on 11th Feb), so how did social media like FB actually help in those days?
    Again with Libya 5% of the population has access to the internet, I am not sure SM has much of an impact there. Most of the Arab world gets their news from Al Jazeera, they have also been leading an aggressive campaign on Twitter with promoted tweets. But these tweets are targeted at a new market which they are trying to conquer: the US, not the Arab world.
    I like your likening of the revolution to a brand, it is a brand, like any political movement.
    Thanks for bringing this subject up and starting the discussion, I don’t think this will end anytime soon. Have a great Sunday Mark- I have just finished reading the Tao and made 5 pages of notes.

  • Great insight here. How could it not work? They knew their audience, and knew what would work with them and what would not. “This is your country” that is just perfect. It speaks to the people you want to attract to your cause.

    They went about everything in a very smart way. Who says social media is just for fun? That is the thing about social media is that now we will see changes happening so much faster.

    Imagine the possibilities of that.

  • Well, even I’m surprised by the turn of events. Honestly I think it easily could not have worked but thankfully it did without widespread violence, at least in Egypt. Thanks, Nancy.

  • Thanks for this insightful comment John and I’m glad you got so much value out of the book!

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  • Simon Tooley

    Thank you for your honesty. It is easy for most of us to use Social Media as an escape when for others it became a life line. A way out. Like anything, we can use these networks for good, for profit or for nothing. There may be more to all of this than meets the eye as you have shown. Keep teaching us.

  • Thanks for those kind words, Simon!

  • This was an interesting post that offered another perspective. No doubt the debates over SM influence will continue as more ripples are felt around the globe. Thanks for sharing. This post reminded me of one I read a few weeks ago by Brian Solis. He talks more in Social Science, but I think it’s a valuable piece of the whole revolution puzzle.

    Social media supports the communication network needed to build ‘density’ around a common cause. It’s not so much branding, but more like critical mass. I think it’s interesting that a Google marketer was involved in the organizing, but we need to remember what happens beyond the tools as one of the commenters reminded us, they had no internet at the height of the revolution and Libya is scarcely wired. Brian Solis explains it better:

  • Thanks for your comment. Certainly guts and courage remain at the heart of any radical development like this! No question about that!

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  • Thanks for this post. Your linking the Twitter Revolution phenomenon to ‘branding’ causes many twists in my attempts to ‘understand’ Social Media in a political context. I think a lot of us have changed our tunes over the last few months – maybe even Malcolm Gladwell. At least, he should.

    Gladwell chose to reference Gil Scott-Heron’s iconic song ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ but made no reference to the writer himself or even the context of this 1970 pivotal work. The irony of this is stunning, given his axiomatic references to historical Black activism to make his point about activism and social media today.

    I strongly recommended everyone take a look at Scott-Heron’s lyrics and consider the implications of likening an on-the-ground revolution to a ‘brand’. I think you’ll agree that the ironic twists are staggering.

    Gladwell’s analysis purports that ‘weak ties’ are insufficient to motivate people to take real risks. It sounds as if he’s never been involved with a real protest march or picket line. The dozens, hundreds or thousands of ‘weak’ ties you have to the strangers around you can make all the difference when facing violent opposition.

    Mark, I looked at your previous post where you said you got it ‘wrong’. I agree with what you were saying there. I don’t think you were saying the same thing as Gladwell however.

    I think what is becoming clear is that mobile changes everything. There is an interesting conceptual linkage between being mobile and connected and being motivated. Demonstrations are often called ‘mobilizations’. One prominent left wing organizer in the UK used to say ‘If it moves, follow it’ long before anyone had ever heard of Twitter or, for that matter, the internet. Motivation is the common link and that is fueled by desire.

    Your concern, which I share, in your previous post, was that young people will be adversely affected by their use of social media. It would appear that it is a usage context question rather than a technology question. The mobilized groups of people in Egypt and in Libya and in Wisconsin are connected not just by social media networks, but also by their hearts and minds. The unmotivated Jersey Shore generation seems to be in danger of losing both.

    Michael Keara

  • Very interesting and very well-written article! Social set greatly influence the thinking of people! This is called – “The instinct of the crowd”

  • Yes, I guess I should have been clear that in my previous post I was PARTIALLY wrong because i certainly think the majority of the article which discusses the social skill of the next generation is valid. Thanks for defending me Michael! : )

    You make some excellent points here, especially about mobile — vast implications.

    I am really loving your insightful, well-written comments, Michael! Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    In all fairness, I think we’re all guilty of succumbing to the social aspects of Twitter and its business/branding aspects (to a degree) that we reach a point where we think “Is this as great as it gets?”

    If you weren’t stunned at the speed of the government shakeups and with Facebook and Twitter as contributing tools then I don’t know what else to say. Quite a”Holy crap!” lesson learned there.

  • Not sure i would use the term brand. But it certainly is a movement. And social media can play a huge role in igniting movements. And we’ve just seen the beginning.

    I believe the Revolution will be tweeted. And tumbled, blogged, liked, and lots of other social media methods for disseminating ideas and ideology in the future. Social media sites are the online equivalent of Tienanmen Square and will continue to be even more so,.


  • I have to say that social media can be very useful in a situation such as Egypt…..until the ruling powers turn the internet off. However, it is eye opening the power that social media has, and the profound changes we are seeing because of it.

  • I actually got to meet somebody from Egypt tonight who was in the middle of the protests. He said that everybody is stunned that this has happened. I think the whole nation is saying “holy crap” right now!

  • Thanks so much for your comment Randy!

  • That was interesting, wasn’t it? Turning off the Internet? Pretty crazy stuff. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mark.

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s hard to know or fully realize the impact technology will have on our lives. Didn’t someone at IBM suggest that they couldn’t think of why anyone would want their own computer? Just for a moment to set aside all the amazing courage displayed by the people of Egypt, I wonder if people are already beginning to research how social media platforms/message influenced events and comparing social media usage across these situations – whether in Libya, Wisconsin or Egypt? I wonder if certain trends are emerging that point to the successes or challenges each group is facing.

    It’s hard to look at an event like the one that took place in Egypt and not feel like you are diminishing the truly inspiring achievement of those involved when you start looking at how social media was used.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  • Doug BDrockway

    I agree, Gladwell missed this one, big time. Shows he’s human.

    We each have our own lenses. Instead of social media and branding a revolution I see it more as social media radically and inexorably breaking down silos and control structures on who knows what, what is true, what people think and what is going on.

    Maybe when the brave people in Tahrir Square were putting it on the line they were explicitly thinking of a brand strategy. Its not the first concept that comes to mind. I do agree that the actions the Egyptian people took, especially those at the center of the uprising, implicitly was brilliant brand creation/management but their aim was to be heard.

    We could say it was a reaction to increasing levels of cognitive dissonance, and it was. It was also people taking back their self-respect that the government had remorselessly tried to usurp in return for “normalcy.”

  • The article is very interesting and very well-written! Thank you very much for your work! Keep up the good work! And if you can write more posts in that style! Thank you!

  • Respectfully, I think I addressed this with my comment in the post: “I realize my characterization of this revolution as a “brand” is unorthodox and I don’t want to come across as disrespectful in any way. I would never diminish the truly heroic personal efforts and sacrifices made in the face of real danger.”

    I don’t see any harm in looking at world events and learning from them via differing perspectives. Thanks for caring enough to comment.

  • Thanks for this very insightful perspective, Doug!

  • You’re right: this is only the beginning.

    The problem that most analysts have about social media and political change is the notion of organization. Gladwell was right to say that thin connections could not have created change in the print through television eras. Organization, structure, and leadership were required in the industrial age for significant social and political changes.

    It’s about the network, not organization

    The notion of self-organizing networks has taken many by surprise, especially the regimes in the Middle East who have resorted to old media tactics like Television and come across as buffoons in the ilk of Charlie Sheen or Randy Quaid. And, opposition political movements were far too slow to react.

    Social networking enables citizen oversight. It accelerates information and can create rapid groundswells. And without leaders – hubs. Wael Ghonim really was not a leader (or mastermind per se) of the revolt in Egypt. He was a trusted enabler or hub. He seeded the discussion and allowed action. He operated within the growing network.

    Brand new brands?

    This is also an indicator of how the notion of brand is changing. Brands are morphing into something more akin to trust and reputation networks. We are only scratching the surface of the social media effect on social and political change. At present, social media can ignite a brand, as you have described. But the underlying message of the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Libya etc. is that brand without authentic value (i.e. Gaddafi) who use industrial PR tactics (i.e. green book, television) will be exposed.

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  • Anonymous

    Sorry, Mark, I was actually agreeing with you when I wrote that last sentence. I don’t think you are diminishing their efforts; I was thinking about my own thoughts and wanted to ensure that I approached the discussion respectfully (like you had done). Make sense?

  • Wonderfully told story Mark. I’ve been scouring the newspapers for mentions and analysis of the social media tools being used to foment the various uprisings and haven’t found that much. But you’ve pulled it together beautifully here.

    As I understand it, things are hitting up in Yemen, which is a far, far poorer state than Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, where there is surely very limited access to the social web (that’s just a guess – I don’t know). I’ll be interested to find out if the Internet plays any role in the political activity there.

  • I was with you until the comment about self-organizing networks creating groundswell. I think that is a romantic notion, especially in the context of social media, but probably not based in reality. The point that revolution cannot occur only on weak connections or without leadership is true. Every movement must have leadership. Even in what we used to call “self-directed work teams” a leader would emerge. Certainly in this case, there were strong and visible leaders.

    Further, I think humans generally want leaders. In the event of a vacuum of leadership, uncertainty and chaos usually occur until somebody steps up to fill the void. We have seen time and again groups of people accepting even bad leadership as a preferred alternative to no leadership.

    Any way, thanks for this wonderful and thought-provoking comment!

  • I got to meet a Christian missionary this week whose church is literally in the middle of Tahrir Square. He showed me some incredible video footage that he took during the uprisings. I may do a blog post about this. Anyway, he emphasized that this was not a revolution driven by politics, religion, or extremists. He kept saying that this was driven by the “Facebook and Twitter class.” I thought that was a fascinating characterization.

  • Wouldn’t a group oppressed by a common threat have significant bonds vs weak bonds?

  • Let’s say you and I lived in Libya (shudder). We both hate our oppression. That bond is strong. But we live at opposite ends of the country and the internet has been turned off. The link is weak.

    With a weak link, if you asked me to risk my life to attend a demonstration, I would say no thanks, but i will Like your facebook page.

    With a strong link, and I regarded you as a brother, then yes, I would die for your cause. That is a prerequisite of revolution.

    What I missed was that the strong link can be built to a BRAND as well as a person. My brother might drive 500 miles to attend a NASACAR race but won’t come to visit me (I made that up). That would indicate his link to a brand is stronger than a personal link to me. It can be a powerful force. I just didn’t think of branding a revolution.

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  • Anonymous

    Great post Mark,
    What I also find interesting is that there seems to be little conversation about what was happening with respect to the revolution in the time between when things “exploded” and 2005 – five years that get no conversation, research, dissection, etc. Everyone (social media pundits, supporters, etc) wants to talk about things when they “ignite” and proliferate because at that moment it’s popular (and interestingly enough) the movement hits a “tipping point” and now everyone can weigh in on why it happened. Often the foundation work, where the blood, sweat and tears happens (before it gets popular), seems to get diminished and lost.

    Both sides of the arguments have their points. But what gets lost (and it is absolutely germane to how, why, and in what manner things happen) is that before things get to a point where “social media” can claim its “brilliance”, there was vital foundation work being done that had very little to do with with the tools, tactics, technology etc. From where I sit it’s also about what Victor Hugo so powerfully said…”Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Facebook, Twitter, Youtube (the next sexy thing a month from now…) is only as good as the idea and determination behind it. Keep doing great work sir.

  • Mark, this is an interesting way of looking at what happened and extends some of Clay Shirky’s insights in Here Comes Everybody. I question the use of the term “brand,” though. Despite all the hype (by pundits and marketers), I think big consumer brands are going to have a difficult time with Facebook because ultimately people aren’t going to care enough about them to engage. It’s different with this example (and, I would argue, with Obama for President), when there are so many reasons for people to engage and get involved–and use social tools to organize for action in the real world.

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