What if we applied brand thinking to social, political and cultural issues?

Every summer in New York’s artsy Chelsea, the SVA Theater teems with anxiety and excitement. Students from the School of Visual Arts get ready to defend their graduate thesis. Given that the Masters in Branding program trains them in business strategy and market research, thesis presentations usually take on a real world, corporate brand and reposition it using design and strategic thinking.

This year’s presentations took a different turn. The students investigated concepts that are real world but not necessarily business-oriented. Instead they’ve either fallen out of sync with the times or off the radar entirely – disability, big food, fake news, feminism and the path of language. The United States Postal Service was the only brand on the list.

We tend to think of brands in strictly aesthetic and financial terms. But so much of branding has to do with building awareness, shifting perceptions and galvanizing action. What if we utilized these skills to examine our societal constructs and help promote important movements? In a culture rife with political and social issues, framing activism through the branding lens is sorely needed.

Here’s what each team uncovered as they contextualized, analyzed and proposed solutions in an attempt to reposition culture in a meaningful way.

Disability: Disable the Barriers

Western society has become more inclusive as far as race, gender and sexual orientation are concerned. What about disability rights? An estimated 1 billion of the world’s people experience some form of disability, but still suffer from social stigma, ableist narratives and exclusionary environmental design. Despite various accessibility initiatives, there still are daunting physical, psychological, cultural, political and educational barriers to be overcome.

The team proposed the idea of Disable the Barriers, an unaffiliated global collective that aims to provide tools in support of people and organizations fighting for disability rights. Disable the Barriers imagines a world in which disable becomes an active verb and forces abled people to confront the question, “In what ways do you think the world should improve before you become disabled?” Disable the Stairs. Disable the Stares. Disable the Barriers.

Big Food: Know Your Food

Kraft Heinz, Pepsico, Nestlé, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars and Unilever market more than 2000 brands in 190 countries. That’s big! Yet big food is starving, its share prices and market caps having plummeted for the last decade. How did it get there? Complicated labelling and shelf wars have lent to the confusion around healthy food. Sugar, carbs, fats and GMOs have consistently gained notoriety as food villains. Couple that with climate change and explosive population growth, and it’s clear we have to change how the planet is fed. Big food needs a big idea: Genetic Modification.

The team chose to attack the premise of anti-GMO movements, questioning why the term has become radioactive. Genetic modification is an essential feature of life on earth, having been used in agriculture, medicine and innovation since times immemorial. They proposed “Know your Food” as the positioning for Big Food companies to take, by coming together to solve the industry’s growing distrust and confusion. They also proposed launching a public awareness campaign – “It’s Not What You Think.” – an initiative that seeks to promote food literacy through science, education and radical transparency. The campaign would re-educate people about what a GMO really is. It gave us insulin, saved papayas from extinction, made bananas edible and even cured children with leukemia. It’s a genetically modified organism. It’s not what you think.

Fake News: You Are What You Pay Attention To

While the term “fake news” began to capture public attention only about a couple of years ago, it has been since appropriated countless times over, calling all news into question. Where should we place our trust? Greater access to info should make us more informed, but instead it has led to a greater lack of trust in media. Is information truly free? Our fastest growing industries in technology are built around us as the product. There is a need to understand how cognitive and emotional tactics have influenced us and allowed fake news to thrive. There is an opportunity for the cycle of fake news – creation, distribution, consumption, engagement – to be disrupted. Instead of expecting the creators and distributors of news and information to mitigate the issue, why not embrace our role of consumers in this new digital environment?

The team proposed Storyguard, a decentralized, democratic alliance of publishers that seeks to ensure trust in news, and offers citizens the freedom to inform themselves on the whole story. Modeled on blockchain technology, the alliance would operate on trust and transparency, protecting against the exploitation of our attention online. It’s time to take back what’s ours – to claim our attention and value its worth. You are what you pay attention to.

Feminism: We Are Not Finished

What does feminism mean today? The conversation surrounding the term smacks of confused and conflicted opinions. There doesn’t seem to be one clear definition that we can agree on. The challenge stems from the term itself – too often dismissed or labelled as a movement for females. That, when people nowadays would rather be associated with causes than labels. How might we get people to rally around the cause without having to use the label of feminism? There’s so much more to be done, and that goes for all genders.

The team proposed that “we are not finished” until we can create a world where there are no more judgements or limitations based on gender; where social, political and economic equality is not a female issue but a human one. We Are Not Finished would promote the equal rights initiative and push for the Equal Rights Amendment to be ratified in all 50 states. We are one state away from adding the ERA to The Constitution. Together we can move forward. We are not finished.

USPS: America Always Delivers

The United States Postal Service is in deep financial trouble. Between 2007 and 2012 revenue dropped $10 billion, and there’s been a 30% decline in mail since 2006. Its image is marred by fragmented communication, stories of unpleasant customer experience and common myths around its funding. The fact is, USPS runs on zero tax dollars, relying instead on the sale of postage, products and services. It has a wealth of untapped opportunities to support small local businesses, reduce costs on its leased properties and create an accessible, convenient experience.

The team looked back at USPS’ history of connecting up America and its inspiring credo – “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” They brought home the idea of reaching every corner and always delivering. It isn’t about politics or the American dream or being there for America only on the good days, but about working together and looking after each other, even on the bad days. USPS could tell the story of an America built around dedicated, hard-working communities of people that always deliver. “America Always Delivers” is a campaign that celebrates the American people, serves their hometowns and empowers them to pursue their ambitions.

Path of Language: Let’s Cut The Bullshit

Language has been around for 40,000 years. It occurs in 3 forms – visual, verbal and non-verbal – and for 3 purposes – transmitting information, conveying emotion and persuading others. The way brands communicate and use language has evolved just as rapidly as language itself. As the team tracked the path of brand language over the decades, they found the current lingo colored by ambiguity, cynicism, highly visual messages and snarky undertones. Whereas brand communications in previous decades were marked by optimism and a sense of revolution, today they’re diffused and haphazard. All societal constructs, from power and gender to truth and ownership, have been affected, and our trust diminished. Leading brands feel compelled to follow the conversation, sounding forced and fake as a result. They’re stuck with buzzwords like inclusion, authenticity and empowerment. They also struggle between wanting to stand out and needing to fit in. Is it art, is it not? Is it made by a brand, or is it not? Businesses want to sound human, but paradoxically, this creates distance.

Let’s Cut the Bullshit, the team challenged their audience. With a symbol based on an inverted bull, the movement seeks to upend language and call out advertising with misleading or diffused messages. The biggest offender will get the Bully Award. This year, for instance, the top nominee was Facebook for covering up its mishandling of user data and helping to spread fake news. We can do more. If you value profit over people, don’t pretend otherwise. Let’s cut the bullshit.


Credit: All photographs taken by Scott Lerman

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