Sophie Maxwell: Has Branding Design Become The New Political Manifesto?

Insight Director at Pearlfisher discusses how more companies are starting to voice their social and political opinions through packaging and image.

How much should a brand voice opinions or comment on socio-political events? Kitchen Aid was forced to apologize following their recent Obama grandmother tweet controversy and American Apparel was lambasted for inviting people to buy the brand “in case they were bored” during Hurricane Sandy.

Social Media has given us all a voice – a way to voice and share opinion. But brands are actually in a strange place right now. They need to connect with their consumers via social media channels but are seemingly not afforded the same freedom of speech as Joe

Public. We don’t just want veiled sales and marketing tactics. Conversely, today’s consumer – with their own personal, moral and ethical agenda – is looking to brands to make a difference; to be cause worthy or charity driven rather than just commercial. But it’s how they do it. And so now we are starting to see more individuals and brands designing moral, social and political opinion into the fabric of their brand design and packaging.

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The art world is no stranger to creating work as a manifesto. Emin’s ‘My Bed’ is still cited and Hirst’s new sculpture Verity has caused a huge outpouring of emotion due to its subject matter and composition but it is not a commercial exercise – and this is what has previously clearly marked the difference between art and design. An issue that has come to the fore recently with the controversy surrounding designer Aitor Throup and the launch of four new clothing pieces, designed to raise awareness of the dangers of ethnic stereotyping and inspired by the outfit worn by Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, wrongly identified as a terrorist, and shot dead by police in London in 2005. It is thoughtfully designed and the rucksack – the focal piece – features a highly technical black rucksack in the shape of an upside down skull, a symbol of misconstructed threat, whereas the remaining three pieces reference the exact outfit worn by de Menezes.

And whilst the news of a collaborative collection between jeans brand Diesel and EDUN to create a new Born In Africa range for Spring 2013 is a worthy initiative, it’s not (on first sight) as challenging as what Throup is doing. He is not just aligning with a charity, he’s not just a slogan on a shirt …he is incorporating a bold statement into the very fabric, structure and shape of his work. Regardless of his motive and political leanings, regardless of our reaction, his sentiment and holistic approach to design and messaging is brave.

And when we look at brand design per se, the beauty sector – whilst maybe seen as something of a ‘soft’ industry – has actually been prolific and directive in terms of how to approach this new creative route.

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Brands such as Stop the Water While Using Me have fearlessly embraced a new level of eco superiority, about goals and not glamour, by using the name and packaging design as their manifesto. But one of the most interesting examples is S.O.P.H.I.E. by Llamascqua, well established as an industry challenger brand, – who have created a dedicated range of products in support of the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. The range is raising awareness in memory of the teenager kicked to death for daring to look different. And this is not just an isolated charity link up for the brand but part of an ongoing philosophy in terms of approach and color and centred on “It’s becoming who you are and not who you’re told to be.”

This can be contrasted to the backlash and denouncing against Oreo after the popular brand released an image of a rainbow stuffed cookie on its Facebook page, in support of Pride Month. This was seen as a blatant allegiance to LGBT and didn’t please all traditional consumers. Essentially, it was an ad image created to force-fit more support and, unlike S.O.P.H.I.E, not directly related to the overall brand philosophy and brand design with synergistic content and targeting.

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Forward-facing, bold brands like S.O.P.H.I.E show that there can be a place for a new opinion-based form of brand design but it’s about the targeting, the timing, the tone – and the sincerity. So much air-time is given to fashion, art and the other creative disciplines but brand design is the key consumer touchpoint. And as such, it needs to find a way to be as hard-hitting and as challenging as possible to fully meet and realize a new moral, social or ethical point of view – but it is a creative medium in its infancy.

Brands need to consider their messaging options and whether they are in tune with their core beliefs, not just their opinions or the creation of a sensational campaign. And, ultimately, it’s not a question of whether brands should use design to voice an opinion but just how they do it.

Sophie Band

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