Branding as Nationalism
Branding has reached the far edges of culture. No longer a field just for the designer, everyone wants in on branding. It’s taught in business schools, there are personal brand coaches and celebrities now want to be brands. When Bill Clinton was asked why Donald Trump was doing so well in the polls, he responded: “he’s a master brander.” Branding has become the way we rate and rank what we consume and how we interact but it’s also started to blur the lines between company, person, nation. Everything, and everyone, is a brand—further separation isn’t necessary.
The Brand State
Peter van Ham, in his 2001 essay, The Rise of the Brand State noted that branding was replaced nationalism. He writes:
[P]oliticians will have to train themselves in brand asset management. Their tasks will include finding a brand niche for their state, engaging in competitive marketing, assuring customer satisfaction, and most of all, creating brand loyalty. Brand states will compete not only among themselves but also with super brands such as the EU, CNN, Microsoft, and the Roman Catholic Church (boasting the oldest and most recognized logo in the world, the crucifix). In this crowded arena, states that lack relevant brand equity will not survive.
In 2008, Barack Obama was the first modern presidential candidate to present himself as a brand. Borrowing from corporate identity thinking and classic consumer marketing tactics, his campaign presented him as a fully established package—every piece of collateral that came from his campaign, from the now famous “O” monogram to campaign signs, websites, and stickers were all branded. Obama was a presidential candidate, but he was also a celebrity, a product, an aspirational lifestyle brand.
Branding, however, is more than graphics and appearance. Branding is the designed interaction of every touchpoint between consumer and company. Branding is what happens when particular images come to mind when thinking of a company, product, service, or person.
In February 2014, Paul Hiebert wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled What’s the Point of City Logos in response to Toronto’s rebranding, following the flameout of their infamous mayor, Rob Ford. Here’s Hiebert:
In recent decades, heraldry has been losing ground to modern graphics, as cities borrow from the logos of the corporate world. While many cities still have a coat of arms—Toronto’s, for example, displays a blue “T” on a yellow shield held upright by a beaver and bear—councils have largely let them fall by the wayside, especially as more cities have turned to a relatively new trend called destination branding, which aims to package cities, regions, and countries as marketable products to lure potential tourists and investors.
Designers have been branding cities for years. In 1977, Milton Glaser designed the now ubiquitous I Love NY icon as part of a campaign to promote tourism to New York City, and later the entire state. The campaign was only supposed to last a few months and Glaser did the work for free.
In 2003, EdenSpeikerman was commissioned to design an identity system for the City of Amsterdam, consolidating 60 different visual identities into one, unified style. The result was a complete identity package that includes logos, subbrands, illustrations, colors, and grids. The brand’s components are available through an online portal so anyone can get the resources needed for their application or initiative.
18F, a group of designers, content strategists, and developers who were formed to help fix healthcare.gov, recently released the United States Government Web Design Standards. This is an attempt to unify the web presence of the US Government across the various departments:
The U.S. Web Design Standards are the U.S. government’s very own set of common UI components and visual styles for websites. It’s a resource designed to make things easier for government designers and developers, while raising the bar on what the American people can expect from their digital experiences.
The Standards include everything from color palettes, style guides, common UI elements, and standardized design patterns.
Studio 360, the weekly radio program from WNYC commissioned the branding agency 70kft to create a new symbol for the South. As part of the program’s Redesigns series, the hosts questioned if one could design an identity for the South that isn’t surrounded by the controversy of the Confederate flag. The designers didn’t just create a new flag, but rather developed a complete visual identity that included colors, patterns, swag, an ad campaign, and yes, a new flag.
Perhaps one of the more interesting brand states is Sealand by Metahaven. “Through Sealand’s online image economy we wanted to bypass the idea of a centrally organized corporate identity.” writes Daniel van der Velden in a 2010 interview with Design Observer’s William Drentell), “Think of the difference between a corporate brand manual and a Google image search on that brand.” Metahaven pursued the identity as a research project, looking at the connections between graphic design and nationalism:
By designing its national visual identity and proposing it to the Principality of Sealand, I am hoping to tackle a number of subjects which are relevant to the field of graphic design. Sealand has issued passports, money and stamps, has its own flag and a national heraldic sign. Although I am certainly not aiming for an ‘up styling’ of this existing context, destroying its Beaux Arts-appearance for the sake of modernity, I do believe that it would be interesting if Sealand would possess a challenging and experimental national identity. Such a program would allow for graphic design’s much needed coming to terms with network society in its fullest sense.
In Metahaven’s piece, Brand States: Postmodern Power, Democratic Pluralism, and Design, they further their research, writing:
Rather than regard state brands as promotional tools, we should perhaps see them instead as diplomatic and journalistic “accounts” of a nation’s own self-reflexive awareness with regard to the multi-faceted reality of globalization.
I became fascinated by this idea, put forth by Hiebert last year and van Ham in 2001: branding as nationalism. What happens when nations begin to see themselves as brands? What would it look like if a country pushed branding as far as it could go, seeing themselves less as a nation and more of a lifestyle brand? Amsterdam, I Love New York, and US style guides are a step in this direction but what would happen if they were pushed to their logical conclusion? As branding blurs the lines between them, could a country adopt the tools of the corporation and begin selling itself? In the spirit of Metahaven, I wanted to use design to research this question and discover what it would look like when the nation and the corporation start to blur.
Monaco isn’t a country. It’s a lifestyle.
Monaco seemed like an ideal test country. Officially a “micro-state” it’s the smallest country in the world, aside from the Vatican, in land area, yet it has the densest population. It’s run by a Monarch, Albert II, who holds vast political power. Monaco has the highest population of millionaires and billionaires of any country and considered “a playground for the rich and famous.” Monaco could become a lifestyle brand: exclusive, expensive, and full of luxury.
↑ Inspired by the pattern in the country seal, we’ve repeated the diamond pattern to create an elegant monogram that connotes luxury, elegance, and refinement.
↑ The four diamonds represent Monaco’s four states. The monogram changes locations depending on which state is being represented, moving West to East.
↑ From government branches to cultural institutions, each department gets named below the monogram.
↑ Monaco’s flag is the oldest design in the world. The updated design keeps the original proportions and colors but simplifies and modernizes it for a new generation.
↑ Monaco – Monte Carlo Station Exterior Signage: The large windows feature interchangeable graphics that can include general environmental branding, promote seasonal events, and public art projects.
↑ Monaco – Monte Carlo Station Interior Signage: Interior and evironmental signage promotes the country as well as upcoming events like ballets, plays, and concerts.