Is brand activism the ‘new’ logo?

Context: This semester, I’m taking a course called Design Theory + Practice as part of my graduate studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Center For Social Design. One of my professional goals is to publish my perspective on the role of design in social change more frequently in media outlets, so I am structuring my biweekly reading responses for this course as Medium posts to practice. Comments + feedback very welcome!

This week’s topic: Brand |This week’s readings: Paul Rand and Andrew Blauvelt | My take: We are on the cusp of a new ‘golden age:’ brands using their influence to engage in activism. Can it last? Should it?

Over the past few weeks, brands of all sizes and industries have stepped up to respond to Hurricane Harvey. Reliable do-gooder Airbnb once again rapidly coordinated free shelter for evacuees through its disaster response program. THINX, the young ‘period underwear’ brand once celebrated for its edgy NYC subway ads and now infamous for the rapid dethroning of its unhinged ‘She-E-O’, is advertising its plans to donate $5 for every pair of underwear sold to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

Disaster relief is a bread-and-butter, evergreen type of social engagement for companies. Like Paul Rand’s perspective on a well-designed logo mark, disaster relief clearly conveys a message on behalf of the brand: “We care.”

Of course, brands stand to benefit in other ways from disaster relief efforts. Airbnb has spent much of this year negotiating with the state of Texas over regulatory issues such as the hotel occupancy tax, and Harvey creates an opportunity to tangibly underscore the value of the Airbnb community. THINX has recently named a new CEO, who I can only imagine is itching to uncouple herself from the company’s tumultuous past (a valid example of what Blauvelt sarcastically calls “running [new leadership] up the flagpole). However, these benefits are secondary to the good these brands are doing, and you won’t find me questioning the purity of motives in this case.

Instead, I’m interested in exploring the broader wave of brands dipping their toes into today’s more complex social issues — in short, how and what brands communicate, and to whom, when there is more at stake.

If, as Blauvelt writes, “branding is both a projection and reflection of the consumer,” can a brand position itself in a way that allows consumers to feel more socially engaged just by backing a product or service? What does a brand stand to gain by its political engagement, and lose by its silence? If a corporation has a personality, many companies want to play the role of your ‘woke’ friend. And it seems like a good bet if they succeed: an early 2016 report by PR agency Global Strategy Group suggests that not only do the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that corporations have the power to influence social change — over three-quarters argue that companies have a responsibility to take action.

Recent social and political upheaval has provided no shortage of opportunities for brands to experiment with this trend. The Rio Olympics found itself sandwiched between Brexit, a refugee crisis, and global resurgence of populism. Super Bowl LI kicked off just weeks after the historic inauguration of a president with openly sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic views. From beer, to iPhones, to automobiles, America’s favorite brands experimented with activist brand storytelling to varying degrees of success.

When it comes to brand storytelling in a highly polarized age, what makes the difference between a rallying cry and a flop?

  • Keep it clear and simple… Consistent with Rand’s thoughts on simple (rather than “muddled”) brand visuals, subtle actions such as increasing representation of minority groups in branding clues consumers in without much risk to bottom lines. Cheerios was widely praised simply for featuring a biracial family in a Saatchi & Saatchi-designed spot in 2013 —it even brought the family back in a Super Bowl commercial that year. A biracial Old Navy ad in 2016 followed this blueprint. Both are family-friendly brands who have little to lose (and much to gain) by drumming up a bit of ire from the internet’s white supremacist trolls.
  • …but do not oversimplify or trivialize... As Rand wrote, “bad design is frequently the consequence of mindless dabbling, and the difficulty is not confined merely to the design of logos.” This seems especially true when brands take on an issue that is more than they can chew. Pepsi’s widely-condemned 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner as a protester offering a police officer a soda was more than tone-deaf — it was a slap in the face to the entire activist community. Pepsi blithely referenced a deep-seated, traumatic fissure in systemic injustice and brutality without explicitly taking a side. In doing so, it did take a side, and the company’s reputation arguably suffered far more than if they had kept silent.
  • …and anchor your messaging in action. Like logos, brand activism is only as good as the product or service it represents. Netflix has added a layer of diversity-related storytelling to its brand, such as its excellent #FirstTimeISawMe campaign on representation in entertainment. However, while Netflix has broken new ground in entertainment diversity in some ways, by claiming this identity it opens itself up to fair skepticism when its shows don’t live up to the hype — like the recent pushback against Atypical, a show featuring a non-autistic actor playing an autistic character, written without meaningful representation from the autistic community on the production team.

Brand is ultimately a “contract between a company and consumers,” and consumers that have come to expect activism from the corporate sector will hold their brands to task. Blauvelt’s rather dim view on modern brand identity as “updatable, replaceable, and consequently, disposable” is therefore not compatible with the authenticity required of a company that attempts to engage in social activism. A clever marketing team will always be able to easily capitalize on short-term trends like new dance moves, or popular memes, but before addressing systemic injustice, they must consider how solid the ground is beneath their brand’s feet.