Eye on Design

What Does #MeToo Gain by Winning “Brand of the Year?”

Do we risk over-simplifying complex social + political movements or do awards like these keep the activist spirit alive?

The Suffragettes have gone down in history for a list of reasons that is as long as it is obvious by now, but there is one lesser known fact that might surprise even the most ardent activist: it was one the very first political movements to create a visual identity. The color scheme (purple, white, and green to represent loyalty, dignity, purity, and hope) was devised in 1908 by Votes for Women co-editor Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and the identity was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, who trained at the Royal College of Art. The colors, sashes, badges, and ribbons marked a sense of camaraderie and a desire to be recognized both within the group and by the general public as a collective entity.

It also acted as a fundraising exercise, with The Suffragettes marketing products featuring the color scheme, including a game called Suffragetto, “An Original and Interesting Game of Skill between Suffragettes and Policemen,” that allowed them to continue their work without accepting donations that may have compromised the integrity of the cause. In many ways, it’s a prime example of turn-of-the-century branding—defining a strong visual identity, and using product sales to sustain and grow—but to suggest that The Suffragettes are a brand would be reductive.

The term “brand” originates from the branding of livestock in Ancient Egypt, to mark ownership and denote quality, and with the first Industrial Revolution it extended to become a practice of imbuing marketable products with character and recognizable personality traits. Now, the marketable products often seem secondary, or they’ve all but disappeared, and the definition of a brand has stretched so far it seems to be swallowing everything up in its path. Individuals work on their “personal brand”; countries employ designers to brand their capital; political movements are described as brands. Maybe it’s just semantics, but to me, defining an individual, a movement, a city, or a nation as a brand feels like a bleakly dystopian act of “tidying up,” flattening complex people, ideas, and places into neat, universally accessible forms. It also ties our sense of self ever more tightly to a capitalist infrastructure.

Today, the School of Visual Art’s Masters in Branding Program announces its second annual “Brand of the Year:” the #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 (last year the honor went to the “pussyhat”). The press release regarding the announcement states that “#MeToo, which began as a grassroots movement, has now circled the globe to unite people behind one cry and cause. This is the highest calling of branding: to bring people together for the benefit of humanity.”

It’s a big statement, with a fundamental sticking point in the relationship between brands and the market, and how that can help to strengthen (or often, to undermine) their ability to bring people together for the benefit of humanity. It also comes unstuck when you consider Burke’s relationship to the movement, and her publicly appointed position as figurehead. She maintains a consistent focus on highlighting the complexity and wide spectrum of harassment and sexual violence, rather than allowing it to be simplified into something with a singular definition. She’s also stepped away from opportunities to monetize the movement, and still gives away the same T-shirts she’s been handing out since she started leading workshops and visiting rape crisis centers; she intrinsically doesn’t seek the spotlight, but rather, legitimate structural change.

Tarana Burke hasn’t claimed ownership of the #MeToo movement or sought to define or classify it. Rather, she’s allowed it to grow and change shape along with the nuances and intersections of the experiences attributed to it. For something to function as a brand, it requires the kind of tangible clarity that’s in opposition to the messy nature of life, let alone lives impacted by trauma. Brands iron out or make statements apologizing for inconsistencies that contradict or fall outside of their “ethos,” and while I’m more than happy for brands to influence my choice of shampoo, chair, shirt, butter, and mascara, I’d rather they lay off our socio-political movements.

In a later release from SVA’s Masters in Branding program, they announced that in light of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s memo concerning Michael T. Flynn and their investigation into Russia’s election interference, the OSC would be announced as “Brand to Watch.” Referring to an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency as a “brand” is even more of a stretch than the #MeToo movement. Brands rely on a veneer of accountability to draw us further into their narrative, and while there can be crossovers in the way public outcry is aimed at all kinds of collective entities, to collapse institutions and companies into “brands” could have the effect of normalizing shallow responses and a transactional relationship with our public representatives.

If by naming #MeToo “Brand of the Year” and the OSC as “Brand to Watch,” Debbie Millman and the SVA department she chairs is suggesting that the definition of brands is evolving to encompass more than just profit-centered companies, I’m eager to learn more about that line of thinking (at the time of publication, Millman had not responded to our interview requests). Otherwise, I worry that acknowledging a movement that has set the world on fire, or an independent federal agency investigating paradigm shifting interference and manipulation as examples of savvy branding, undermines the significance and impact of individual trauma and collective reckonings.

December, 2018

Originally published by Eye on Design.