Robbin Phillips is Courageous President of Brains on Fire, a company with the core belief that “marketing has the power to truly touch lives.” This is a powerful cause to champion, and readers familiar with Brand Harmony will see the affinity between our ideas. Robbin co-authored Brains on Fire, which is about “igniting powerful, sustainable word-of-mouth movements.”

I caught up with Robbin to talk about the book.

Steve Yastrow: What made you focus on word-of-mouth movements instead of the many other marketing strategies out there?

Robbin Phillips: One of our advocates and friends, Chris Sandoval from USAA, has a great line in our first book, Brains on Fire, and it goes like this:

“Its about the people.  When it comes to technology [or other marketing strategies] – what is exciting and shiny today will be frickin’ dead tomorrow.”  

 In our minds, the focus of business is not – and should never be – technology. Rather, it has been and will always be, about people. Living, breathing human beings with hopes and dreams, pet peeves and whole lot of emotional baggage.

And why not focus on people?

People are amazing. They form tribes. They create social change. They make great discoveries. They struggle. They fall in love. They are social and emotional. People create word of mouth and conversations. They love to help others. They want to be a part of something bigger than their own lives. They want to change the world.

As marketers, we’d be crazy not to tap into those strong desires.

SY: Brains on Fire is certainly a powerfully imaginative title—and name for your company. It also strikes me as having an interesting backstory. What’s the philosophy behind it?

 RP: Brains on Fire is not about us. It’s about what we DO for our clients. We help the people you serve (your employees, your customers or your donors) become so excited about who you are and what you stand for that they become advocates or living messengers for your cause, brand or organization.

We help create an army of “Brains on Fire” for your brand or cause.

SY: You encourage organizations to focus on people instead of tactics, like Facebook.  Many people are probably thinking, “Sounds great, but how can I get started doing that?” Can you share a success story that shows how this works?

 RP: Today, the words “movement” and “community” are thrown around by marketers to mean anything that can be measured in “likes” and “followers” and “shares.” But we stand by the original definition of the words. We know movements and communities are not ignited by “likes,” they are ignited by people. Real people with real names. People interested in more than just winning a contest or promotion. We’re talking about passionate people who are connected and willing to put in a little elbow grease for something they believe in.

Here’s a story for you. I was riding down the road and saw a truck with the common thumbs up symbol followed by the all too familiar “Like us on Facebook.” This particular company was in the sewage business! Why would I want to have a conversation with them, much less “like” them on Facebook? We’ve all gone a wee bit crazy over the new tools and tactics in my opinion.

It’s key to remember that people love to talk about themselves, their loves, passions, kids and dreams. They don’t want to talk about you.

The classic example of our mantra “it’s not about the product conversation, it’s about the passion conversation” is Fiskars and the community called The Fiskateers. We talk about them in both our books, Brains on Fire and The Passion Conversation. People don’t want to talk about the precise angle of the blade on Fiskars’ orange handle scissors or other crafting tools, but they will talk about what they DO with these tools; scrapbooking and sharing the memories of their lives with their friends and family.

 SY: Fast Company published a really nice review, commenting, “…authentic leadership can be released from your customers, and their passion can be fanned into movements that change lives forever.” That’s the kind of powerful brand every company dreams about. How can brands help their customers on this journey?

 RP: Your customers and advocates can absolutely help lead the conversation. We don’t recommend it for everyone, but in a lot of cases we suggest a community strategy that includes a specific number of trained Ambassadors to “lead” the conversation.

This can take many forms. Leadership voices can come from within the organization, or they can come from voices outside your organization. Or both. Often we go out during our insight phase looking for people to lead the charge. We call them hand-raisers; people who are willing to “give up a weekend” to share their love for your cause and their passions. And yes, every organization has a cause and a higher calling. You just have to do a little digging to find it.

Here’s a great example from The Passion Conversation:

Foundation Recovery Network (FRN) is a beautiful network of dual diagnostic addiction treatment facilities. They’re thought leaders in the world of addiction treatment.

In our country, 20 million people need help for addiction yet only 3 million seek help. FRN believes the reason people don’t seek the treatment they need and deserve is the stigma associated with addiction and mental illness. They want to “break the stigma” and celebrate the beautiful and heroic journey of recovery. So Heroes in Recovery began with just six Lead Ambassadors.

The impact? A new conversation, both online and offline about addiction, as well as bottom line results for FRN.

SY: What’s the difference between a campaign and a movement?

 RP: Well, there are many. Here’s my top three:

  1. Campaigns have a beginning and an end. Movements go on as long as kindred spirits are involved.
  2. Campaigns are dry and emotionally detached. Movements are rooted in passion.
  3. Campaigns are you talking about yourself. Movements are others talking about you.

Brains on Fire movements are not about short-term fixes. They’re not about campaigns to wrangle more “followers” or add names to a mailing list. They’re about earning strong connections that transform customers and employees into allies and believers.

SY: Are there any brands that would have a particularly difficult time igniting a word-of-mouth movement? What fundamentals are required to fuel this long-term momentum?

 RP: We work hard with our potential clients to determine fit. Yes, we are looking at budget fit and key metrics and goals. Those are important things. But we know from our experience that you must be passionate about your brand. You must have a strong commitment to outstanding customer service and a true love for your customers and employees. And most importantly, you must have a willingness to partner with and trust people, and be brave enough to “be famous for the people who love you.”

SY: Robbin, it was a pleasure hearing your perspective. Thanks for your thoughtful answers—you’ve certainly given my readers and me lots to think about.

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