the BRAINS ON FIRE book

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My friendship with the marketing agency Brains on Fire began in March of 2005. That’s when I heard Geno Church, word-of-mouth practitioner from Brains on Fire, share the Rage Against the Haze case study. Instead of a multi-million advertising campaign to convince teens in South Carolina to stop smoking, Geno showed how building a grassroots marketing movement was able to make a significant difference in reducing teenage smoking rates in the state.

From there, Brains on Fire built another grassroots marketing movement for Fiskars, the makers of the well-known but not necessarily talkable orange handled scissors. This movement was and still is led by thousands of scrapbookers known as The Fiskateers.

I’ve been fortunate to work directly with Brains on Fire and each time we work together, my fondness grows deeper for what they do — build marketing movements.

Writing in their just-published book, BRAINS ON FIRE: Igniting Powerful, Sustainable, Word of Mouth Movements, we learn exactly how they define a marketing movement.

‘No, we’re not going to pull out the dictionary. We’re just going to let you know that—for the purposes of what’s ahead—we have developed our own working definition of what a movement is: A movement elevates and empowers people to unite a community around a common cause, passion, brand, or organization.’

‘So let’s take it a step further, since we’re talking about sustainable movements here: A sustainable move happens when customers and employees share their passion for a business or cause and become a self-perpetuating force for excitement, ideas, communication, and growth.

Throughout the book, we learn of ten lessons Brains on Fire follows to ignite and fan the flames of customer evangelism. It’s a worthy read for any marketer, especially marketers rooted in the evolutionist marketing mindset.

Robbin Phillips, the courageous leader of Brains on Fire as well as a co-author of the book, answered a few of my questions about the book and her company’s approach to igniting marketing movements.


In the book you talk about the ‘quiet leaders’ of movements. Why is this and where can a marketer find, among its brand fans, these silent leaders.

ROBBIN PHILLIPS [RP]: ‘First of all, let me back up and say this out loud: Movements need inspirational leaders. If no one is expected to lead, no one will.

With the rise of social media, companies and organizations all too often seem to get focused on finding and reaching out to the ‘influencers.’ We don’t buy it. Many times, those folks are driven by ego and a desire to create more influence. They are not necessarily motivated by the desire to move a passion or a cause forward.’

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‘Quiet leaders leave ego by the wayside. Diversity of leadership is important – it creates a quilt of inspiration. You need some folks who can make some noise and comfortably stand on the rooftops and shout. But the quiet leaders are important because often times they are the do-ers.

They also elevate those around them instead of always elevating themselves. And when you elevate others they never forget it. They stay engaged. They are loyal and often happy to return the gesture.’


You write, ‘One of the secret sauces we’ve discovered igniting movements is that barrier of entry is vital. Yes, we want to keep people out of the movement; in fact, it’s a key to success, growth and sustainability.’ Explain what you mean.
RP: ‘The barrier of entry notion gets a lot of push back from traditional marketers. But it is just so logical. A barrier of entry calls us to know what we don’t know.

Think back to the number of online communities you’ve signed up for. You go there, create a user name and password, click around a bit and never return. Often you can’t even remember your user name or your password. We call it password amnesia. If you’ve done any kind of social networking you’ve probably experienced it.

On the other hand, If you want to join the Fiskateers, one of the movements we highlight in the book, you have to be wiling to read the bio of a lead and connect with one of them personally. They usually ask you a question about your interest. We lose 50% of folks right there. Which is great.’

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‘That’s why large numbers don’t impress us. We’d rather go for engagement and participation. Jay Gillespie of VP of Brand Marketing at Fiskars says it well, ‘For me it’s not about the numbers, it’s about growing even deeper relationships.’’


Outside of the work Brains on Fire has done with its clients, share a marketing ‘movement’ that someone else has ignited that you wish Brains on Fire had been a part of.

RP: ‘I picked up INC. magazine the other day while traveling. And I stumbled on an interview with Leslie Blodgett, the CEO of Bare Escentuals. I got so excited, I wanted to call her on the spot. She understands the passion conversation (Lesson #1). It’s not about product, the makeup. Women just want feel pretty.

She also understand that movements live both offline and online (Lesson #8). When her products were first being sold they were different and often women had questions. She didn’t have time to answer everyone online and she began to notice that other women were answering for her. She embraced them and started to hold training events and sharing knowledge (Lesson #5) at her salons. That led to cruises or ‘giant slumber parties’ as she calls them. Her success validated some very important lessons we have learned.

She also cherishes her love letters. And says, ‘I read these letters before I go to sleep at night. They remind me of what we do. It’s powerful. I don’t want to be a business. I want to be a community.’’

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‘So that is just one example I’m recently happy to have found. I also hope this book introduces us to even more successful movements and new lessons learned. We have a Lesson 11 in the book and genuinely hope that others will help us write the rest of the story. And that the learning will go on and on and on.’
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(Via Brand Autopsy.)

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