Mark Ritson: The lessons we can learn from Kony 2012

‘On a human level, the film is a scorching and emotive experience. For marketers there is an extra level of interest.’


There is a very strong probability that this time last week you had not heard of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. And there is just as strong a probability that, one week later, you are more than familiar with Kony and his dastardly acts. Such has been the power and global impact of the ‘Kony 2012’ film created by not-for-profit organisation Invisible Children.

On a human level, the film is a scorching and emotive experience. For marketers, there is an extra level of interest born of the implications that the Kony 2012 campaign has for marketing and communications. I believe there are six major lessons to be learned.

First, telling a story still matters. Yes this is a horrific one, but still a story told with incredible power and impact. Who would have imagined in this age of global clutter and nano-second attention spans that we’d all be talking about an old-fashioned 30 minute film – and one that examines social justice and global equality at that. Jason Russell, the director of Kony 2012, shows us that if you craft your message, the audience will listen.

Second, positioning is everything. While we can celebrate Russell’s creative skills in crafting his film, his marketing savvy is nowhere near the same level. If it was, he would have realised that glitzy shots of planet earth, Hollywood production values and a high impact soundtrack are perfect for attracting an audience but self-defeating in getting them to give money. As The Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw put it, Kony 2012 is a “slick, high-gloss piece of work”. Great if you are making sci-fi but not so clever if you are trying to elicit social change and motivate giving. Much of the criticism of Invisible Children’s budgeting, in which only 32% of the $8.6m it raised last year went to direct services in northern Uganda, can be traced back to the over-professional look and feel of Kony 2012.

On a human level, the film is a scorching and emotive experience. For marketers there is an extra level of interest

This criticism from other aid groups, Ugandan officials and social activists also illustrates point three: you build brands from the inside out. Thanks to Kony 2012, the Invisible Children organisation has increased its brand awareness by an astonishing degree over the past week.

But with that attention has come accusations of exaggeration, incomplete fact checking, inconsistent political statements, inappropriate support for the military and an overemphasis on costs at the expense of charitable giving. Invisible Children was clearly scrambling late last week to reclaim the initiative and defend the organisation. Better to have your organisation prepared for potential criticism before you start advertising with films like Kony 2012 than after the event.

Fourth, social media works best as social media. Look at how Kony 2012 managed to create such a viral sensation and it’s clear that it is people power that drives the new marketing media. The film is repeatedly and dramatically about people connecting with other people, from the tragic and ultimately redemptive story of Jacob, to the role of Russell’s son Gavin who tries to understand the cause to which his father is so committed. There are continual references to the need for people to band together. Social media works best when it connects people.

Fifth, as powerful as social media is, it’s only one part of the digital communication mix. Yes, the spread of Kony 2012 is certainly the story of what Vimeo, Facebook and Twitter can achieve. But as soon as Invisible Children started receiving criticism, it wasn’t social media that was used to respond; it was a good old-fashioned web page titled ‘Critiques’ on the organisation’s home page. It might sound odd, but there are a large number of companies who think social media is an art in itself. They have gone mental on Facebook and yet have a home page from 2002 and no e-commerce or Google strategy to speak of. Social media is part of the digital mix, not a separate, special territory.

And while we’re at it – let’s add lesson six: digital and social media are simply part of the standard media mix. By the time you read this, more than 100 million people will have watched Kony 2012. For many, the introduction came from other friends and colleagues via social media. But for many others it would have come from a newspaper article or a TV programme about the film. Just as social media is part of digital, digital is part of the whole communications mix. To erect silos that separate one communication form from another is madness.

It might seem heartless and insensitive to discuss marketing when the aims and objectives of Kony 2012 are so much bigger and more important than our little discipline. And yet there is so much we can learn from the past week. It’s clear the Kony 2012 is a high water mark in the rising tide of new communication approaches that are now taking place around the globe. It’s equally clear that most of the lessons to be learned from this campaign have been learned before and will be forgotten and learned again in the future.

The author will donate his fee for this week’s column to Kony 2012.