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Brand or be branded

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“Success means never letting the competition define you. Instead you have to define yourself based on a point of view you care deeply about.”

Tom Chappell, Tom’s of Maine
In Sum

Branding is one of the more misunderstood communication concepts, especially among anti-corporate activists, who can and should use branding to their advantage.

Branding is a dirty word for many activists, but it really just means “the set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”[1] If we take branding out of the realm of consumption and into the interplay of ideas in the public sphere, then we see that the tools of branding can be used for more than just selling soap.

Three important points to keep in mind about branding:

Branding isn’t inherently “corporate.” Branding is really nothing more than a set of proven principles for associating, in the collective imagination, a certain word, phrase or image with a set of emotions or ideas. There’s nothing inherently capitalist about that. Corporations use branding because it works. Anti-corporate activists can use it, too.

Branding can make the difference between success and failure. Every movement wants its message to be heard, but simply being right won’t sell your ideas. The human mind needs to be persuaded.

There are copious examples of movements using branding effectively. In the ’90s, for instance, an adherence to a certain aesthetic helped unify the Otpor! youth movement that swept Serbia and ousted Slobodan Miloševic.

Whatever the context, if you craft your message for your intended audience, then that audience will want to know more. It’s as simple as engaging people in a dialogue that appeals to them. If they feel you aren’t talking to them, they’ll ignore you — or worse, work against you.

You’ll be branded whether you like it or not, so be proactive. Even conspicuously “unbranded” campaigns have a brand. Despite its efforts to avoid defining itself, the Occupy movement ended up with an effective brand when the “99%” meme organically emerged as the touchstone for people within and outside the movement.

If you decline to brand yourself, you leave an opening for other people — including enemies — to brand you instead. Operating within someone else’s frame is always more difficult than operating within a frame that you yourself have set. Think of your group’s brand as water spewing out of a hose. You can either leave the hose on the ground, or you can pick it up and direct its flow. Either way, the water continues to flow — and if you don’t pick up the hose, someone else will!

Branding is an opportunity to shape your message and ultimately use the power of that message, its meaning, and its delivery to win the war of ideas. There’s no such thing as an unbranded campaign or movement — though there are plenty of examples of poorly branded ones. Brand or be branded.

  1. [1] Seth Godin, “define: Brand,” Seth’s Blog, December 13, 2009, http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/12/define-brand.html.
Potential Pitfalls

Branding, like anything, can be overdone. If people feel like something is being “sold” to them, they’ll respond negatively.


Cristian Fleming is a graphic designer, creative strategist, mischief enthusiast, and founder of The Public Society, an ethically grounded branding and design company based in Brooklyn, NY. He also works often with activist groups like The Yes Men to make stuff happen in the service of making the world a little better.


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