What marketers can learn from Parkland students' powerful campaign for gun control

Survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre are leading the most effective movement in social media history.

It’s been one month since a gunman stormed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and killed 17 people.

But it feels like the massacre happened only yesterday. There’s good reason for this: Unlike previous school shootings, the gun control debate routinely sparked in such aftermaths has not yet waned. It still dominates social feeds, steers the daily news agenda and remains at the forefront of our minds. As a result, politicians are having conversations that matter and, in an unprecedented move, brands are starting to distance themselves from the National Rifle Association.  

All of this is happening because the students who survived have mobilized one of the most effective and powerful campaigns the marketing world has ever seen—all without spending a dime and with virtually no help from agencies.

"Parkland students have built their brands differently, and more sustainably," said Kyle Boots, director of brand and social analytics at Y&R’s research arm BAV. "Through a steady stream of consistent and authentic social conversation, students like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg have emerged as symbols of their cause. They understood social momentum and demonstrated the power of authenticity and community to cut through the noise and affect change."

The #NeverAgain movement began as the importance of authenticity and trust have come to the fore, Boots explained. According to BAV data, consumer trust in brands has declined 12 percent year over year since 2001. It’s shown the team that trust and transparency are becoming more significant drivers of brand equity, especially among millennials.

Conversations on social media urging politicians to act have garnered 100 times more interest than those posted in the wake of Sandy Hook, according to BAV data.

"If social media has given people a stronger voice, it has also become harder for brands to drive perceptions of authenticity," he continued. "The fact that the Parkland students themselves are leading the movement gives their call to action a sense of urgency and authenticity. Together, they acted swiftly and decisively to capitalize on the conversation and cultural momentum."

What makes this campaign so effective is the relentlessness way in which the students are driving the point home. The research has made clear that focus needs to fall on an authentic brand platform, rather than one-off pieces of content. A good example of the latter is the Ice Bucket Challenge. Although it achieved viral reach and widespread positive appeal in the short-term, BAV data shows that it did little to build the ALS Foundation brand in the long-term.

The students' ages cannot be ignored, either. They’re older than those affected at Sandy Hook and have been able to convey their own stories in powerful and personal ways. They’ve also acted decisively as a community in ways that victims from Virginia Tech, which had a huge student body, or the recent shooting in Las Vegas weren't able to.

Survivors’ voices have been joined by multiple splinter groups dedicated to sharing their campaign. One organization fueling this juggernaut is Mobilizing MSD Alumni. It started as a small Facebook group hours after the shooting but has rapidly ballooned into a body with more than 11,000 members in 24 chapters around the country.

Speaking about why this movement feels different to previous gun control campaigns, Craig Pugatch, one of the national coordinators for Mobilizing MSD Alumni, told Campaign US, "The students—who are the direct victims—are vocal, intelligent and pointed enough to make sure they have a clear message, and they’re grabbing on and not letting go."

"The groundswell of support that’s come out is because people were looking for a voice to be heard, and these students have amazingly provided it," he said. "They’re focusing on an issue from a common sense perspective, and when people come to attack them from a political side, they’re being clear on their message."

Pugatch said the students’ message is "not getting lost in the mire of politics" because, although they hold various political beliefs on other issues, the overlap on both sides of the aisle about this topic is too great to be ignored.

"Whatever side of the political aisle they’re on, they’re saying what a vast majority of Americans want to hear and want to support," he added.

As well as supporting the school in ways like ensuring students and parents can attend the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. on March 24, the alumni were behind impressive OOH campaigns, including a blackout of the Empire State Building and a takeover in Times Square, Manhattan.

They teamed up with Head Turner Outdoor and Big Sign Media, which looks after Big Sign Message. Together, they worked with vendors to turn several billboards across some of the busiest streets in the world into touching tributes. On March 6, the signs bore 17 eagles (the school’s logo) and the names of those killed. The ad ran for an entire day. The cost for Mobilizing MSD? Nothing. Everything was donated, from the graphic work and initiative by alumni Stacey Goldman and Shane Fedderman, to the $7,000 ad placement absorbed by the Big Sign Message team.

Daren Turner, digital director at Big Sign Media, said it wouldn’t have been possible without Peter Rankin, the group’s chief technology officer who created the digital interface on its boards known as iDisplay, and the campaign’s dominant force created by Parkland students.

"This is a lot more palpable, because for the first time you can actually feel it," Turner said of the movement. "Their capacity to understand social media really becomes their main weapon. In a way, social media can be blamed in part for what happened, and now they’re mobilizing the same tool that has hurt us so much.

"Hats off to them for being smart and having that empathy to make social media a better place and harness its power for real change."

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