15/03/2011

By Mark Rollinson, All About Brands’ Group Creative Director

Flags and other symbols have become the hallmarks of North Africa’s uprisings. Mark Rollinson explains why the adopted emblem of each uprising fosters a sense of common cause, and provides an insight into the role of ‘branding’ through history.

All About Brands hosted a seminar recently about the uprisings affecting North Africa and the Middle East. Dr Ramla Jarrar, a spokesperson for a Tunisian NGO and who protested on the streets of Tunis at the time, came into the office and talked to our team about the Jasmine Revolution or, the Facebook Revolution as it has been dubbed in Tunisia.

As we know, social media, particularly Facebook, had a massive impact in mobilising people, notably the young, in Tunisia’s revolution. In common with other states in the region, once the authorities had lifted the Facebook ban, it was quickly embraced by young Tunisians; at the time of the uprising over two million people, or 20 percent of the population, were on Facebook.

Dr Jarrar made an interesting observation. She explained that people expressed their support for the uprising (and therefore their opposition to the regime) by replacing their profile photograph on Facebook with a picture of the Tunisian flag. It was an unfettered statement of belief in the future of their country.

The uprisings have been a fascinating phenomenon for a multitude of reasons but, as a visual person, I’ve been particularly interested in the role of symbolism.

In Tunisia, the national flag became the symbol of the revolution. In Egypt, Tahrir Square in Cairo became the visible representation of political challenge and then change itself. In Bahrain, the Pearl Roundabout in the centre of Manama has become the symbolic centre of the opposition’s challenge there. And in Libya, it’s the pre-Gaddafi flag, associated with the rule of King Idris from 1951 to 1969, which galvanises the opposition’s campaign.

Flags, of course, are more than a patterned piece of cloth; they stand as a symbol of a country, a people or a cause. Along with other emblems and symbols, they foster a sense of purpose and common values and, ultimately, speak to mankind’s deep need to belong. They also demonstrate loyalty. Wear the symbol; support the cause. The implication of a symbol is that you are either with us, or against us. It’s the most vivid expression of commitment and loyalty. In other words, symbols and emblems are a form of branding which have been with us since the dawn of civilisation.

We tend to think of branding as a relatively recent innovation, but history is littered with examples of the power of branding and symbols. Certainly, over the last two thousand years, branding has played its part in shaping the development of nations and national identities. But branding – in a commercial and not just a political sense – goes back even further.

Potters’ marks were used on pottery and porcelain in China, Rome and India as far back as 1300 BC. It is thought that branding (a symbol denoting ownership) of cattle and livestock goes back to 2000 BC. Examine the pyramids of Egypt and the ruins of ancient Greece closely and you will notice countless examples of millennia-old graffiti – or are they forms of contemporary advertising?

Another notable feature of the recent unrest has been the sheer passion for change. For Western observers, the passion with which the protesters have sought change has been truly inspiring, as they overcome tremendous hardships to make their voices heard. Underpinning this passion on every news report were the symbols of their protests, flags, posters, banners and even locations. All this symbolism has helped to drive the protesters’ emotional responses and it is this emotional response that leads to action - just as it does in any other branding situation.

What is clear is that the drivers behind all these different forms of branding, whether historical or contemporary, have much in common – to create a sense of belonging or ownership, to share a common set of ideals or values, and provide reassurance that you have made the right choices. Taken together, they ultimately drive an emotional response which has the power to motivate people to act, while building loyalty and trust.

As the truly historical events in North Africa and the Middle East continue to unfold today, we’re also witnessing events that speak to the power of the brand – just as they have throughout history. Long live the revolution!

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