• Richie Crowley

What Non-Violent Revolutions Can Teach Us About Marketing

Nonviolent resistance campaigns are nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts, so we might benefit from learning their strategies.

Srdja Popovic was a self-proclaimed too-cool-to-care bass guitarist who was bar-hopping Belgrade before he became an unlikely leader of Otpor! the non-violent movement that toppled Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Popovic has since led a life training other non-violent revolutionaries from around the world through his organization CANVAS. His life mission is to equip non-violent revolutionaries in pursuit of democracy with a strategy to overthrow oppressive regimes.

Not to sell things.

But, when reading his book, Blueprint For Revolution, I admired the marketing tactics that his organization, Otpor! deployed to activate the mighty force of “people power.”

It is completely insensitive to compare a non-violent revolution to a marketing campaign, I will not do that. What I will do is extract the principles of marketing that Otpor! and other successful nonviolent movements from history have used.

“Believing that change can happen to you, dreaming big and starting small, having a vision of tomorrow and practicing laughtivism, are the foundations of every successful nonviolent movement.” — Srdja Popovic

You need a name that means something

InThe 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Al Reis and Jack Trout share that your brand needs a name that means something. The Law of Focus suggests selecting a name that is both easy to remember and comes to mind first. In soda, this is Coke, in candy bar, this is Snickers. The Law of Focus also claims that the most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect's mind. What Reis and Trout mean is that your brand’s name needs to mean something. Vice versa, whenever someone hears the word that your brand owns, they need to think of your brand. They continued that we should choose our words wisely and not to choose someone else’s words. Popovic’s movement followed the law of focus perfectly. Their name was Otpor! meaning “resistance” and no one else owned the word “resistance.”

Get a logo

In the same session that you select your name, select your logo. You want your logo to stand out. Otpor! selected a fist. They then made sure that everyone knew their logo by spray painting it in hundreds of places around Belgrade. Why do this? Well, word association.

If a person sees the fist and knows the fist is the logo of Otpor!, then that person will be reminded of the resistance, because Otpor! owns that word. The movement also knew that marketing effects take place over an extended period of time, so continued exposure to their logo would keep Otpor!’s resistance in the prospect's mind.

Brands require advertising and advertising relies on symbols. Having a strong logo helped people in Serbia make the connection that all this unrest was related to something much larger than them, and people want to be a part of something. Logos help provide that.

Have a villain

Shit just got a lil dark, my bad. A villain can be the problem you are trying to solve or the existing brand you are trying to guide prospects away from. Either way, make sure everyone knows your mission.

Listen to people

Using the late Harvey Milk’s story of San Francisco politics, Popovic educates readers that most people, without exception and without fail, just don’t give a damn. So, the solution to mobilizing them isn’t in forcing them to care, it’s to care about them. Mobilization requires listening.

When Milk started listening to his community he found that the common grievance was dog shit. So he made dog shit the enemy (see above lesson: Have a villain) and ran for office on a platform of social change, starting with poop.

When you listen to people you learn what individual motivations exist and can bake those into your solution, your product. With respect to marketing, you might have a great idea or even a great product but is it what the customer wants? This will pick the scabs of failing founders who were too intimately stubborn to pivot. This is why outside consultants and strategists are useful. We don’t really care about the story, we care about if it’s a solution.

Don’t do what’s expected

Today, and this is aimed at CPG product brands, everyone’s online presence, and pop-up branding is the same. A light color palette, evenly spaced out things, focused shots of the product. A few brands though do things completely opposite: Old Spice, Red Bull, Harry’s Razors, Oatly and Manscaped all come to mind. This is called the law of the opposite. Too many brands try to emulate the leader. This is an error because you must present yourself as an alternative. So, what did Otpor! Do? The most opposite thing they could.

They made getting arrested cool.

“Our little demonstrations became the hottest parties in town; if you weren’t there you might as well have kissed your social life goodbye. And none were cooler, naturally, than those who managed to get themselves arrested — being hauled off to jail meant you were daring and fearless, which of course meant you were sexy” — Srdja Popovic

Listen, in no way do I support getting arrested, but consider things that disrupt the norm. Banksy captivated New York City for the month of October with his street residency in 2013, and a year before that Felix Baumgartner set the world record for highest altitude jump with Red Bull, breaking the sound barrier upon reentering the atmosphere in the process. These are grand examples, but they are unexpected, they’re clever, they’re the opposite of what people are expecting. Chances are your social media feed content is unoriginal, so be brave and generate ideas that on the surface don’t make any sense. Why? Well, because according to the laws of marketing, they actually do.

It doesn’t have to be boring

Marketing is entertainment. In his early days leading the Otpor! movement, Popovic learned that activism didn’t have to be boring. He tells the story of how his favorite band, Rimtutituki, rode through Belgrade’s Republic Square in protest one afternoon when it was filled with soldiers and tanks from Milosevic’s forces. Rimtutituki stood on the back of a flatbed truck, circling the square, performing songs, mocking militarism, speaking out against wars, and advocating for democracy. At this moment, Popovic realized he would rather see a rock concert than attend a demonstration. He realized things can be fun, they don’t have to be boring.

Don’t overlook humor

“If you’re hoping to get a mass movement going within a very short span of time in the age of the internet and other distractions. Humor is a key strategy.” — Srdja Popovic

The leaders of Otpor! knew politics were boring and they wanted everything to be fun, but more importantly funny. People talk about funny things. Now, you might be thinking we’re not starting a mass movement, but you’re wrong. A product launch, a live event, a tour, these are all versions of mass movements. In mass movements, you are aiming to mobilize people for something, that something is excitement for your brand or product.

Demonstrations work

I’m not talking about your cute little SoHo pop-up, nor am I talking about streaking at the Superbowl, although I am available for that. I’m talking about something in the middle. Demonstrations attract press, and press coverage allows others to tell your story for you.

Otpor! put white flowers on Turkey’s and released them into the city center so that police would have to chase them down. Why? Well, they knew the press would report on this and circulate photographs. The press then performed Otpor!’s marketing for them. You may wonder how people knew this stunt was Otpor!, and it was because their logo was included, so once people saw the logo they knew this demonstration was about the resistance. See why a having a logo and owning a word are important?

You can get creative here. During the reign of Pinochet in Chile in the 1970s, the people of Chile encouraged taxi drivers to drive at half speed and people to walk at half speed. What Banksy did was a demonstration. You can do this in the digital age too. For example, for a week only release empty video content with soothing sounds to remind people to invest in themselves during stressful moments. This is both a demonstration and applying the law of the opposite. Remember Fyre festivals coordinated launch with the orange square? Demonstration.

Invite in the elderly.

Oh, it’s a fucking party now. Using the Maldives as an example, Popovic tells a story about a colleague of his who noticed the elderly could be allies to their movement. The elderly were a group no one was paying attention to, so Popovic’s friend’s movement did the opposite and invited them in by giving them attention and listening to them. You can have a lot of success if you can create something of value for an underserved audience. In the Maldives, that was the elderly.

Older people also tend to engage with trends more than fads, the latter reserved for the youth. Fads may find success in the short-term but joining a fad isn’t a strategy. Joining a trend is. Investing in the younger generation might pay off in the short term until the next shiny object comes, but the long term play might have something to do with age.

Invite in everybody

Too often brands don’t realize what they are communicating. Most marketing is actually more exclusionary than it is inviting. Popovic used the Occupy movement in the United States as an example. Admiring their ability to invite in star power, the movement failed to diversify who their selected influencers were. They failed to invite in celebrities that represented middle America or the southern states. He continued by asking: “What would have happened if Occupy activists, instead of taking over symbolic squares in bigger cities, tried to go where the average Americans lived and worked spreading their messages in places like the imaginary south park and sleepy little towns in the rust belt?” The occupy movement neglected a massive population. Exclusion.

Everybody wants to join a winning team

Popovic tells the story of an Israeli man protesting the prices of cottage cheese and the Facebook group he started to rally support. It began with only 32 members including himself, but after a few local blogs covered the story, a national news outlet featured his protest which then increased group membership to more than 9,000. It was growing, people saw it and wanted to be a part of it.

Consider the Tik-Tok or Houseparty apps, or Twitch during Coronavirus, or even the current non-alcoholic craft beer revolution in the United States. These trends are winning and people want to join.

Momentum is everything

One of the biggest lessons from this book is to strive to make sure everything you do services to keep up the momentum. To do it best, you sometimes need to sit in stealth mode a bit longer. Consider this: You get an idea to host a podcast, you interview 4 people, you release 4 episodes, people are loving it and then nothing. You haven’t had enough time to interview the next 4 people nevermind edit the episodes so all that momentum you had is lost.

The shitty thing about momentum is that in addition to your pace you need to up your game and go a bit bigger and better each follow-up. That’s also wereprofessional idea generatorscome in handy.


The first and most important thing you need is unity. As told through an analysis of FEMEN, the Ukrainian ground founded in opposition to a thriving sex trade that subjected so many women in their country and elsewhere to a life of misery and violence. As FEMEN grew with successful branding and demonstrations, offshoot groups popped up in different countries and their demonstrations were different. Slight iterations confused supporters. This diversification of targets, causes, and messaging took a bit out of their focus.

This, in marketing, is the law of extension: When a brand is doing well with one product or one thing, they then begin adding on items. The Law of Extensions says doing that is an error because it falsely assumes the brand name is more important than the product and that new products often actually block older more successful products.

Now, for anyone questioning the efficacy of these extractions, become aware of a book titled Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephens. In their research of 323 conflicts between 1900 and 2006, Chenoweth and Stephens found that “nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.”

That’s facts.

To end this lesson, Popovic offers two strategies that might help us to overcome Murphy’s law: Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

  • The first is to do your homework and be as meticulous as you can in making mental lists and avoiding leaving anything to chance.

  • The second is to be serene and learn to accept setbacks as nothing more than a part of the back-and-forth of making a difference.

Good luck.

Richie. Human.

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