Wisconsin | Lost & found: a hegemonic progressive narrative

Every once in a long while something comes along that inspires progressives all across the country – all at once – and that has the power to reach beyond the boundaries of our progressive circles, to break out of the cognitive boxes we’ve been placed in, and to associate fresh meanings with old labels, such as: organized labor, unions, workers’ rights, collective bargaining.

These once powerful terms and labels have been systematically slandered (negatively branded) for decades – so that too much of the public has become inoculated against them – but in Wisconsin there’s an opening to make these concepts powerful again to a new generation.

Chris Bowers spells it out at Daily Kos today:

Recent surveys from Pew and Clarus (PDF) do not give unions, in the abstract, very high marks from the public. The Clarus poll is particularly brutal. However, when the abstraction is removed and the people fighting for unions are your neighbors, your friends and your children’s teachers, then people tend to side with the union.

This point is demonstrated by the first non-partisan poll to ask Wisconsin residents what they thought of Governor Scott Walker’s controversial plan for public sector unions. According to the poll, a majority of Wisconsin residents don’t like it…

I wonder how we’ll see this moment when we look back on it five years from now.  Perhaps it will dissipate as other openings have.  But maybe not.  There’s a lot of potential here.  When we positively and popularly rebrand the core concepts and vehicles of progressive power, we accomplish many things at once.  We suddenly have a compelling solidarity-based narrative.  Such a narrative (and cognitive frame) is always available to the usual suspects, but it is rare in recent decades for it to take on a hegemonic quality in society.  Such a narrative is precisely what the Democratic Party has been so lacking these past three decades – and it is the very narrative that had awarded the party the hegemony it had enjoyed for four decades before (from FDR nearly until Reagan).  

It is a narrative that potently exposes the contradictions of a conservative coalition that is comprised of fractions that do not really make sense together.  As Tom Tomorrow tweeted today:

Just so I’m clear on this: Tea Party is siding decisively with government in its battle against middle class Americans?

Sure, the cognitive dissonance will be lost on the hard core, but social change isn’t about persuading the hardest opposition.  It’s about isolating them.  The banner of economic populism belongs to organized labor and organized civil society – not to the concoction of the so-called Tea Party.  Popular uprisings like we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Ohio – and who knows where next – take that banner back for us to wave loudly, proudly, and powerfully.  So powerfully that some Democratic politicians finally find their words and their spine, as Wisconsin has so clearly illustrated.

Grassroots organizational branding | grassroots communications tips pt.4

Branding, in the advertising world, is imbuing a company or product with positive associations inside the consumer’s mind.  Marlboro, for example, has so successfully associated cowboys and the wild frontier with their product (cigarettes), that some of their ads don’t even mention the name “Marlboro.”  They don’t need to, because the product comes to mind automatically at the sight of the now-famous cowboy image.

In the late 1990s Rainforest Action Network (RAN) carried out some very effective negative branding campaigns, which many powerful people took notice of.  RAN realized that a positive brand is one of the most important assets of a corporation.  A tarnished brand can repel consumers and scare away investors, as Home Depot learned the hard way.  RAN effectively painted Home Depot as a reckless destroyer of old growth forests and rainforests, until the company committed to discontinue using old growth forests for lumber.  (A few other companies followed, like dominoes, just at the threat of a possible RAN campaign against their brand name.)

It was around then that I got to thinking about the brands of the social justice organizations I worked with.  A brand is essentially the memories and associations that tend to come to mind in the popular imagination at the mention of your name.  In this sense, individuals can even have “brands” (though we usually call this a reputation).  What associations were coming to mind at the mention of different social change organizations?  What about at the mention of broader labels such as activism, environmentalism, feminism, socialism, the peace movement, etc.?  If a tarnished brand hurt a corporation’s ability to move product or attract investors, perhaps our tarnished brands were part of the reason so many social change groups were having such a difficult time attracting more participants.

So, let’s say you’re a small business owner who makes very delicious sandwiches.  However, despite the deliciousness of your sandwich, your business is in a remote part of town, your storefront display is abysmal, the aesthetic on the inside is kind of weird, and your waitstaff and clerks aren’t very good at interacting with customers.  Are you likely to sell a lot of sandwiches, just because you have a good product?  And, to extend the metaphor, it turns out that your sandwiches are not delicious after all.  You and a few of your friends like those sandwiches a whole lot, but it turns out to be an acquired taste.  It’s as if you sell broccoli sandwiches, which you know and believe to be good for everyone’s health and well-being, but why doesn’t anyone come to your store?!??  MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE EVERYONE BUT YOU IS BEING BRAINWASHED!?!!  THEY’RE ALL SHEEPLE!!

Oh how I wish that didn’t feel so familiar.

But seriously, taking political action or getting involved in a social change organization can be about as appealing as a broccoli sandwich.  Maybe it’s good for the health of the community, but it may be an acquired taste.  So, maybe you can remix the ingredients to make a more attractive product.  Maybe you can add a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  Maybe you can move your operation to city center where there’s more foot traffic, and maybe you can make it a fun place that people will want to come back to.  And maybe you can find a graphic designer to make a good sign and logo.

That’s all organizational branding – anything that affects the memories and emotions and experiences that people associate with your organization.  Your social change organization is a vehicle to move an agenda forward.  Not only do you need to craft your agenda into a compelling message, you also need to recognize that your vehicle is the messenger and that the messenger matters.  You need to create positive associations in people’s minds, so that when they think of your organization they are attracted, rather than repelled.

(This is not to say that substance does not matter at all.  Some people will inevitably despise your organization, its values, and its agenda.  This discussion concerns the people who are essentially passive allies – people who are sympathetic, but not presently involved.)

When I returned to Lancaster, PA in early 2005 to work with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice (LCPJ), I set out to move forward an intentional organizational branding strategy.  I started by looking for good graphic designers, and soon we found three (at a local bar, of course) who graciously volunteered their services for the LCPJ.  The designers and a few other core members of the LCPJ formed a kind of cadre; we met regularly to strategize and plan and build a compelling and mainstream brand for the LCPJ.  We decided to avoid words like activist, protest, and demonstration, which we felt were red flags to too many people.  We studied the posters and advertisements of other local community organizations, and built an aesthetic that fit with what people were used to seeing.  Instead of a “teach-in,” we organized a Town Hall meeting to discuss the war – for which we reserved city council’s chambers.  We met with local soldiers, veterans, and military families, and some of them got involved with the LCPJ.  We made sure that their voices and stories were front and center.  We even started a sharp-looking bimonthly community newspaper called The Lancaster Voice.  Everything looked professional.  We were intentional about everything from our spokespeople to our fonts – recognizing that it was all part of our organizational brand, which is to say it all affected our ability to mobilize our community.

Again, central to our branding strategy was projecting ourselves as mainstream, or familiar.  This importance of the familiar was underscored yesterday in a post over at Fenton – The Power of Parable (worth checking out):

…you should tap values, stories and images that are familiar. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns says, “Familiarity quiets the amygdala” – the part of our brain that regulates our fight or flight response. Asking people to change their minds is automatically disquieting. Introducing familiarity will help to tame anxiety.

This was the intuitive logic at work in our organizational branding strategy.  Everything we did said, in essence, “This is a Lancaster community event.  Your view of the war is a mainstream view, and you can join with other regular folks in your community to oppose it – without seeming like a hippie.”

The results: two years in a row we turned out 800 people on the anniversary of the Iraq War (the highest per capita turnout in the country, and several times as many as anyone in Lancaster could remember seeing at a public rally); we turned out 2500 people for the Eyes Wide Open exhibit; we developed a circulation of 5,000 copies for The Lancaster Voice; we developed the capacity to organize regular events and to mobilize people to take action on a variety of peace and social justice issues.  This was unprecedented in Lancaster County, which up to that point had a reputation for being a conservative area.

Our intentional and disciplined organizational branding strategy was key to our success.  By recognizing the generically negative and marginalized “brand” that some forms of social activism had been pinned with in our area, we were able to adjust and build an organizational brand that felt familiar and carried positive associations.  We took down the “DIRTY HIPPIES ONLY” sign that some jerk had hung on our storefront, and we replaced it with a sign that said, “Everyone Welcome.”

In conclusion, this post is not a nuts and bolts guide for how to brand your specific organization; successful branding strategies will vary from one organization and one context to the next.  Rather, this is a conceptual piece, intended to illustrate how good branding can make a big difference; to make a case that every progressive change organization should develop a conscious branding strategy.  There are many aspects of an effective brand – from your logo to your motto, and much more – but what should inform all of it is an underlying goal to meet your target constituency (beyond the usual suspects) where they’re at; to connect with the common sense, common concerns, and common experiences in your community – while still pushing toward your progressive goals.

Credit and thanks to Jeff Rummel at Good Productions, Jess Mauger, and Dana Leeper for their stellar design work for the LCPJ.  No offense intended toward dirty hippies.

This is the fourth post in a series.