"I am done with the labels. I am resisting the labels of the communities I am choosing. I ask to be part of community action, but to name my own politics"
- excerpt from a freewrite earlier this month.
I'm not a marketing, content strategy guru, nor do I consider myself a seasoned activist, but as a writer & editor committed to compassionate communication and a former “outsider” to activist causes I have noticed a thing or two about branding in the activist community that just don't work for me. I have in fact refused to hitch my direct support to causes that I've seen doing good work but have used branding language in a way that frustrates me greatly. This post signifies the start of a series. Each entry will include either a specific example of activist banding I see as ineffective and/or problematic or further revelations about activism and branding as a whole.
Before I start to do that I need to outline what I interpret and believe to be the goals of activist branding. And why those activist goals are important.
Activism for me at it's core is about opening people's minds to more human ways of being in the world-- ways they'd never noticed or had not thought possible beforehand. Outside of any political philosophies and habits I have, I believe this truly and completely that: If we, as members of the human race, communicated better, we would hurt each other less.
Before I can "make change" as an activist my first job is to communicate. This is why I write, this is why I am passionate about consent dialogue and consensus. This is why I am constantly looking for ways to be a better writer and communicator. The most important activism work to me is seated in language and how we talk and package our messages.
In both ad campaigns and my politics I like simple questions that have complicated intuitive answers. The challenge here is to let go of the idea that your audience will think what you want them to think. They won't. What this means for activist groups: before we do outreach to general audiences activists must accept the reality that people's definitions are valid cultural context even though those definitions and ideals differ from our intended definitions.
Its important to meet people where they are at. This is a philosophy I've tutored under and written under for a long time. Respecting your audience's current context and definitions extends the first line of compassion. It gives something to your audience, welcomes them in your message.
I'm not saying that all activists should be courteous about every topic at all times or that outcries of rage and disgust are ineffective or unnecessary, but that our first contact with an audience outside our group of activists should avoid this. It should come from a place of understanding and invitation. An invitation that comes with an angry yell and a proclamation about everything that is wrong and problematic may feel and be absolutely true to the speaker, but to the audience, to the listener, it can be scary. It can be confusing. Expressions of anger are valuable and useful in many ways and more specific contexts but when used as content and slogan of wide scale branding they often alienate.
If we want people the choose to stand with our cause then we have to make sure that they know we won't devalue them as humans for choosing otherwise What holds true for ethical sex/romance also holds true for content strategy: Your audience can't fully choose to join your cause unless they have the option to refuse without consequence.
Movements should not seem compulsory (that's the kyriarchy's job!). Outreach content should not accuse its audience of having the wrong definitions. We want people to choose to see words and concepts in ways that resemble how we see them. This is what learning is. Educating others is not a simple transfer of information (because then proclamatory re-defining approaches would work). Radical education makes space and invites others too chose and create ideas new to them.
The bombastic, downright pushy ways (stay tuned for specific examples!) I've seen activists promote important information completely ignores their audience's learning role in the process of radical education. Quite frankly in some ways it reminds me of a mean, authoritatian teacher.
The thing that separates activist branding from branding at large, what makes it radical, is that the activist's goal in branding should be to incite critical thinking in their audience. Calling folks to participate in their community and culture critically. There's a recent and apt approach in marketing bourn out of web 2.0. It takes advantage of its audience's enjoyment of interactive internet features. This approach often includes showing users the effects of their interactions. It invites its audience to feel that their input is welcome and appreciated. If participants in a survey get a notification telling them how their answers assisted their organization they can see clearly how their critical input is valuable & welcome. As activists we too should invite the audience to pool their critical thinking with ours.
Rather than demand our audience correct their ways, activist branding should invite and make space for critical consciousness. It'll take patience for our audience and a lot of questioning. It does NOT require that we let go of the principles about which we feel righteous and real rage, but that we take some focus off the issue and focus on the reality of the humans we are trying to reach out to. If our audience can see we care about them as much we care for our message (which we as compassionate activists should already be doing) they are more likely to care about our messages. The best promotional tool we have available to boost our message is our ability to express care for and invite the critical thinking of those outside our movement.