Social change for girls: what's brand got to do with it?

In the first of a two-part series, Girl Effect’s Jess Majekodunmi looks at how brands and social change have more in common than meets the eye.

Before I get on to brands, let me tell you about 14-year-old Mimi. She lives in a small town in the Amhara region in Ethiopia. A year ago she came home from school to find out she would be married the next day to a man twice her age.

With her education cut short and isolated from her friends, a married adolescent girl has limited decision-making power in her new family – she is at the whim of her husband and may be forced to have children much earlier than she is physically or psychologically ready for.

Rather than turning into another statistic, something powerful inside Mimi urged her to run. She ended up in a town over 500km away. It was a tough decision with tough consequences. She ended up living on the streets, invisible and isolated.

Although this situation is all too real, Mimi is actually one of the fictional characters created for an Ethiopian radio drama. Storytelling for social change isn’t new, yet this drama is part of a much bigger story we are telling through a brand called Yegna.

Yegna is rooted in Ethiopian culture and reflects the reality for girls in Ethiopia today. Launched in 2013, it’s a branded media platform that exists predominantly as a radio drama, talk show, advertising platform and a girl band with concerts, music videos and number one hits. Any single one of these products can create a change for girls. Together, the effect becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.

The ability to unite all the products across the media property is tied to our thinking around brands and brand building. Yegna is what gives all our products and communications a shared sense of meaning, value and purpose. 

When I say Yegna unites all the products across the media property with a shared meaning, what I really mean is no single product or feature is as compelling as what Yegna represents as a whole.

That’s why Coca-Cola doesn’t talk a lot about the fizziness of its fizz, it talks about happiness. That’s why Dove doesn’t talk a lot about the soapiness of its soap, it talks about real beauty. The biggest and best known brands tell us a story and compel us to tell a story about ourselves – using their products to do it, of course.

Yegna tells a big story about a big idea. Although Yegna deals in fiction, it is based in fact. Girls drive everything that Yegna does –who they are, what they love, need, fear, dream and want. Yegna’s shared meaning is built on a fundamental emotive truth about the lives of girls in Ethiopia. Just like how famous and established brands create a close connection to their audience, the power of Yegna is in its emotional connection to its audience.

Girl Effect blends brand-building methodology, behaviour change theory and development frameworks. Which shows there are a lot of commonalities between successful brands and behaviour change theory. 

If Apple can convince record collectors to buy and consume music in a whole new way; if L’Oreal can assure you that you are worth it; if Facebook can persuade me that my friends should be updated right now with what’s on my mind, is it so outrageous to think that a brand can create positive social and behaviour change for adolescent girls?

We know people are more likely to change when they feel positive about the change and about themselves, when new ideas and behaviours are visible and appealing, and when those new ideas are delivered with consistency from a trusted source. At its simplest, that’s the thinking behind behaviour change communications, and that’s the thinking behind the brands we build.

Jess Majekodunmi is a brand strategist for Girl Effect. This feature is based on a talk she gave at the 2016 Social and Behavioural Communication Summit in Addis Ababa 

Through storylines that confront real-life issues and challenges that girls face every day, Girl Effect and Yegna are challenging the way Ethiopia views girls – and the way girls view themselves. Find out more about Yegna here.