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The Grillo Effect: Why did the social genie leave the bottle?

Opinion, 04 March 2013

The success of Beppe Grillo in the recent Italian election has got me thinking. Why does the (social) genie leave the bottle? What is it that transforms an incoherent protest movement into an almost unstoppable viral idea that spreads and multiplies? And could it happen here, or elsewhere?

For Grillo’s success  is a truly viral phenomenon - a political movement with no organisation and no HQ, led by a single charismatic individual who uses his blog as a rallying point for those who can’t make it to his town square rallies, and who communes with the faithful via social media. The more I look into the ‘Grillo Effect’ (and other viral events) the more and more obvious it becomes that (strong) emotion is the key; that emotion is the force that pushes the social genie out of the bottle. In Grillo’s case, it taps into a broad seam of anger and alienation caused by years of political failures, corruption and economic uncertainty. People feel angry; they feel frustrated and, worst of all, they can’t see a solution emerging from either of the two main political ‘brands’.

We often see the benign effects of virality, when positive emotion leads people to share the things which make them feel good with others. Recent examples include the Olympics, which defied all naysayers (of whom there were many) by becoming a huge social success. Similarly, the Royal Wedding in 2011 captured the imagination of both the UK population and much of the world. And, of course, Apple continues to inspire an (almost) religious devotion that leads its fans to evangelise about its products (whatever the objective truth about them).

But we see the destructive power of virality when negative emotions are provoked- when people become angry, frustrated, disaffected or disempowered. For example there is an almost a palpable anger towards the BBC after a series of PR disasters and mismanagements that have knocked faith in this hitherto almost unassailable brand.  . When the same thing happens in politics, you get a Grillo; when it happens to a brand, you get meltdown, as some of the food brands implicated in the recent ‘horsemeat in lasagne’ scandal in the UK are finding to their cost. Or check out the #Mango hashtag on Twitter, where Spanish fashion retailer Mango is in hot water after it described  a new necklace on its website as "slave style".

Could the Grillo Effect happen in the UK, the US, or in any other major western democracy? At the 2010 UK general election, the third party, the Liberal Democrats, polled almost a quarter of the vote – denying either of the two main parties a majority and forcing the Conservatives into coalition with them. Once in power, however, their ‘plague on all your houses’ shtick fell somewhat flat, and the Lib Dems now find themselves supplanted as the party of protest by the UK Independence Party – a right wing protest movement (with a charismatic front man) - who polled 28% in their most recent electoral test (Eastleigh).

Some have compared Grillo’s rise to that of Mussolini’s, and I’m not going to comment, other than to say that, given the obvious disaffection of the Italian electorate with the traditional political class, if  he were to repeat Il Duce’s infamous March on Rome (that brought him to power in 1922), he might just find himself running the country. Once the genie’s out of the bottle….


About the author

David Penn is MD of award winning agency Conquest, based in London's Kensington. The company is one of the UK's leading independent researchers, boasting ongoing clients such as Heinz, Pizza Hut, L'Oreal, Pernod-Ricard, KFC and eBay. Conquest carries out both quantitative and qualitative research and, most importantly, is a pioneer of innovative online research methodology, welding neuroscience and behavioural economics with traditional communications theory.

Before starting Conquest out of sheer frustration with what many research agencies had to offer, Penn amassed a wealth of experience in marketing and research spanning both client and agency sides of the business, honing his skills at Lever Bros and UB.

Penn has published and presented widely on marketing and brand research recently, at MRS, ESOMAR, WARC and ARF conferences as well as running a regular blog on WARC website. In the last 6 years, he and his team have been shortlisted, commended or won outright a total of 18 industry awards, garnering the prestigious innovation in Research Methodology award for 2014. Industry leader David Smith identified Penn as one of the key contributors to helping us understand "how developments in neuroscience mean we should be laying down a new theory of market research." Veteran industry blogger 'Left Field' and other peers admire the trail-blazing proprietary methodologies developed by Penn and his team to measure brand emotional engagement and viral potential. Penn's "fantastic (work shows) that nowhere is emotional engagement more important than for campaigns hoping to enjoy viral success and word-of-mouth."