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.