Lean In : A very good case study in social cause branding


If you have been following the recent media coverage of the pending release of the new book by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, titled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead – you will have been witnessing the core ingredients to a very good social cause marketing case study.

The first ingredient relates to championing a cause that is relevant to the community and aligned with the individual/organisation leading the crusade. In this case, Sandberg is championing a change in mindset and approach for young women in how they manage their careers. She is urging young women to “lean in” to their careers to counter obstacles not faced by male colleagues.  She says women hold themselves back in ways both big and small….”we internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men.”

Sandberg is ranked by Forbes magazine as the fifth most powerful woman in the world and earning $US30.87 million in 2011. She therefore has some legitimacy (although somewhat privileged her critics suggest) in speaking about the cause and given the under representation of women in senior management roles she has chosen an issue with community currency.

The second key ingredient is to provide a platform for bringing about change. This dimension she is tackling with gusto as it is far more than a book. Sandberg and her team want to create a network of “Lean In circles” across the US, made up of women in their 20s and 30s keen to absorb the lessons and wisdom of the successful Sandberg. They will watch video lectures at night-time meetings and read and converse about the topic and related subjects. The Lean In circles will have membership requirements and a strict format of check-ins, updates, presentations and discussion. Corporate sponsors, such as Sony and Johnson & Johnson, have signed up as launch partners.

Sandberg is formulating a manifesto to drive positive change and she is developing a structured program to make this manifesto accessible (albeit with membership rules) giving the desired change half-a-chance to succeed. From a cause marketing perspective having a well developed process for actually bringing change is critical.


A third ingredient to a successful social cause marketing initiative is to be able to promote awareness of the cause. This is something that the Lean In movement has been able to achieve in its early stages. The lessons on how this has been achieved are worth noting. Firstly name the program something memorable and ideally relevant. Lean In is a potent name because of what it symbolises by way of a call to action.  Next choose a truly big name ambassador (even better of course when it is their initiative) and frame the cause in a way that the media pick it up. In the case of Lean In the media have picked it up because of Sandberg’s profile and also because what she is advocating is a little controversial in some quarters. Critics suggest that for many working women, let alone single mothers, who put in long hours, they simply do not have the resources that Sandberg has managed to build up to take up the sexism battle head on. One of her most pointed critics is Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former top US State Department official who wrote a feature in The Atlantic magazine arguing that women expecting to have a family and a full career were being held to an unattainable standard.

The net effect, regardless where one’s attitude resides, is that there is a worthy debate being aired and our consciousness to the issues at play heightened.

The final ingredient is to execute well and deliver. In the case of Lean In it would be worth setting some initial goals or milestones to have as celebratory markers if and when they are achieved. In the end the ultimate test of any social cause marketing program, like all brands, will be the extent to which it delivers on its promise. Time will tell.

But like most things in this world what Lean In offers will not hold equal appeal across the total female cohort. It may be that the true target market is women who mirror the attributes of Sandberg herself whereby her success has been described as being the result of the sweat of on her brow, her ambition and a knife-sharp mind. Clearly not for everyone – something that most successful social cause programs and brands understand.

Peter Singline
Master of sweat on the brow and ambition, but not so sharp of mind!


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