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.
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.