Weeks prior to the Supreme Court hearing landmark marriage equality cases, the marketing team at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) started to plan. Our goal was to give people across the United States a way to feel involved and to unleash the broad-based support for LGBT equality that exists across America.
We created a red version of the iconic blue and yellow HRC logo to replace our Facebook profile picture. Red is the color of love and for us, love is what these cases are all about. We hoped people would copy the logo to show their support for equality. What an amazing response we all saw. Facebook was a cascade of red for days. But it took a lot of strategic planning for a national moment and an easy way for people to feel involved.
Each day leading up to the Supreme Court cases, we ran blog posts and posted graphic images that could be shared, and organized other online promotions to help build the drumbeat toward the cases. We aggressively promoted the rallies outside the Supreme Court and created a countdown for each day until the first case was heard. Our team also created an online hub to push people to find ways to get involved, attend a rally, or find out more about the cases.
The Monday before to the first court case, we changed our logo on all of our digital platforms—Twitter, Facebook, the website, and Instagram. We leveraged our Facebook followers of more than 1.3 million people by asking them to change their profile pictures in support of equality and to ask their friends and family to do the same. We also reached out to high-profile supporters such as George Takei, the openly gay actor who portrayed Mr.Sulu on Star Trek who has millions of Facebook followers.
While we were busy preparing for the next day, a sensation started to occur. I didn’t notice any changes on Monday night but when I woke up on Tuesday, it was a different story.
Our website crashed due to unprecedented traffic—close to 700,000 unique visitors in 12 hours. We found ourselves distracted by this issue and as a result, we still had no idea that the campaign had taken off.
By Tuesday afternoon, it finally dawned on us that the message might be spreading beyond our own networks. As the entire staff was at the Supreme Court, there were only a few of us in the office and every few minutes, someone would pop their head up to announce our latest supporter or say that their entire feed had turned red. Support online was growing rapidly, and the team was busy monitoring both the traffic and the wide variety of memes that began to appear.
By late on Tuesday, we documented close to 100 different variations on the logo, and we made an important decision: We were going to not only embrace the memes, but also promote them. Politicians, celebrities, and corporate America embraced the logo. Bonobos, Bud Light, Martha Stewart, and Beyoncé all picked up the red logo—it became synonymous with equality. The memes and our embrace of them helped continue the conversation about equality.
Most organizations are very protective about their brands, but for this campaign, HRC put our logo out into the universe without any organizational language, making it easy for individuals to embrace. It was a bold move for the organization. We certainly could have taken a much different approach to try and control the campaign or to brand it more tightly, but success relied on allowing people to make our logo their own and feel like they were part of something bigger. In the end, doing so now gives us greater brand recognition and the opportunity to engage millions more, moving them up the ladder of engagement to take even bigger actions.
On Thursday, Facebook finally released the numbers. More than 2.7 million people changed their profile picture on Tuesday alone. Facebook noted it was one of the most viral political campaigns in its history. Our estimates for the entire week are closer to 10 million, as unofficial data from Monday suggests close to 4 million people changed to the logo and the trend continued throughout the week. The many other actions that people took, such as sharing the logo or commenting, were not captured by this tally.
While the numbers show massive impact, the red logo is a story of sharing—every single post was a result of an individual act, not an automated tool. Technically, it’s not easy to change your profile picture. It’s a four-step action, which suggests that individuals were ready to do something, ready to start an open conversation, perhaps for the first time. Most importantly, I have to think that when isolated young people—those not out to their family or victims of bullying—saw the sea of red, they understood that they were supported and accepted by a huge community of people.
While this was the first time that the Human Rights Campaign has truly gone viral, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Over the years, we’ve been pushing image shares, videos, apps, and a variety of other campaigns to try to engage our supporters online. The lesson for all organizations working to achieve social change is to keep it simple, keep trying, plan ahead for your external moments, and believe in the power of people.