03/21/2012 03:54 pm ET Updated May 21, 2012

Conducting Business in Revolutionary Times

We're living in a time of movements and uprisings.

Yesterday a movement exploded around the world entitled: Stop Kony 2012. When I logged on there were around 150,000 views. By the time I'd finished and refreshed the page there were thousands more, by nightfall there were 8 million.

What's this movement thing all about? What do uprisings really mean to me? Are they simply an ecstasy of rebellion or fights for social freedom. Or, are they establishing a new culture of activism that is changing the game.

As I was finishing my new book called, UpRising, movements were happening everywhere. They started in the Middle East. Egypt had fallen. Bashar al-Assas in Syria faced a mounting national and international uprising. Europe's economic turmoil sparked uprisings in Greece, England and Spain. In the U.S., we saw the Occupy Wall Street movement (which, at the moment, may seem like yesterday's news -- but it's likely to resurface as the weather warms and the political season heats up). Protests targeting government corruption were occurring in India, led by one man who ignited a movement that changed the entire government. Israelis had taken to the streets to rail against the rising costs of housing. In Canada, we saw that one foolish policeman declared that women should stop dressing like "sluts" to avoid being assaulted, which sparked an uprising of women first in Canada and then in other countries in which women purposely dressed provocatively as a part of this protest.

This is the power of movements: They can start out with a small group of people who believe passionately in something. And they can end up changing the culture... around the world hyper-fast. Just look at the Stop Kony 2012 as a good example.

Whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will ultimately have an impact on the issue of income inequality or reinvent America is hard to say. But one thing it has already achieved is to awaken people to the power of movements

For those of us in business, it may seem as if all of this is transpiring in a separate realm, well outside the corporate bubble. Unless the protesters are specifically targeting your business, it's natural to think, "This new era of protest makes for lively news, but has nothing to do with my company or brand."

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, I made the argument that this is the complete opposite of what you as a business leader should do.

If that's what you're thinking, here's a bullhorn alert: The new social unrest is everybody's business, including yours and mine.

Something has changed in the culture over the past couple of years. Blame it on global economic pressures, general restlessness, or the new hyper-connectivity that enables people to instantly organize around causes and hot-topics. It's probably some combination of all of these factors, but the net result is that we, as business leaders, are now dealing with a populace that is more socially engaged, more aware of what's going on in the world, and more hungry to get involved and be heard on various issues. We all know about the mini-uprisings in recent months against brands like Bank of America and the Susan Komen Foundation. And you might say, "Well, they made a bad decision." But part of their mistake was in not realizing that the world had changed around them. In this new world, their "customers" could easily become activists -- either for or against them.

So how does a smart business respond in a time of heightened passions and greater activism? Rather than becoming more cautious (in hopes of avoiding any kind of backlash), I believe brands must connect with that passion and activism somehow. If you fail to respond to this shift in the culture, you run the risk of being out of step with your customers. Your company could end up looking like a "status quo" brand in a revolutionary world.

Better to join in the march. If uprisings and movements are happening all around, then your business needs to somehow become involved in movements -- or better yet, start one of your own.

I believe many who have watched what is transpiring around the world can't help wondering: How can I be a part of something like that? Or, could I possibly help start something like that, based on an idea that matters deeply to me?

Among those asking this question will be activists, educators, politicians, community leaders, tech innovators, artists, concerned citizens, entrepreneurs and business leaders in big corporations. The last two groups may seem out of place at a march in Zuccotti Park. Aren't movements such as OWS against business? Aren't movements and uprisings supposed to be about noble causes and higher purposes -- as opposed to selling stuff?

Those are the great questions I tackle in my book. I expect that when you're done, some will still feel that business has no business getting involved with movements. But here's what I think. Movements -- at least the kind of movements that gather around positive, creative, dynamic ideas, can help build a better, fairer and more sustainable, and more interesting world. They can help, like in the case of Stop Kony 2012, or The Girl Store for Nanhi Kali to rally support for worthy causes; help an innovator or entrepreneur build momentum behind a new idea, that can even put someone in the White House. From a business standpoint, they can enable a company to form a stronger connection to the public. And yes, that can certainly translate into profit, though I think it can also have other effects that are less mercenary but no less important.

Many traditional marketers will shun away from this thinking because the advertising industry is based on making money and money is still made in traditional advertising not in thinking in new ways such as movement marketing. Organizations aren't structured to change models so quickly. Some are setting their sights on a new model of marketing such as APCO Worldwide.

OK, OK... the thought of turning to movements instead of traditional advertising is controversial. But these days of business revolution what isn't controversial? The systems of the past are not the system of the future. And the movement for movements is just beginning.