From Ribbons to Tees, the Power of Social Branding

On Friday, I met with a business acquaintance, an investment banker type, who was insisting that Brands were no longer important…as he pontificated from the depths of his brand-clad and covered self.

On Saturday, I was in the local park with my granddaughter Goldy, when I noticed that she and half her friends had on clothing (sweatshirts, hats, leggings, etc.) that sported the now-ubiquitous symbol of nuclear non-proliferation, the iconic peace symbol of my youth…currently affixed to my Jeep.

On Sunday, I picked up The New York Times Style Magazine and saw a piece called, “When Protest Movements Became Brands.”

Intrigued, I began to think about symbols that became Brands and are sold in popular culture, on everything from t-shirts to Louis Vuitton bags.

To begin with, symbology as a sign of membership in a group, secret or otherwise, is as old as humankind. The Mark of Cain still resonates and has spawned stories, comic books and movies across the ages.

Long before t-shirts, religion loved the shorthand of symbols that became Brands. Stars, crosses and crescents were readily identifiable. Depending which one you wore, it imbued the others with deeper meaning… and more often than not, dread or hatred.

Cross Star_of_David.svg400px-USVA_headstone_emb-17.svg
Images via Wikipedia

Resistance movements always used secret signs as a means of identification—think fish and early Christians.


Then of course there was the swastika, coopted by the Nazis, that still, sadly, sells branded merchandise today.

One of my favorites is the iconic image of Che Guevara. According to Dazed Digital, the iconic photograph against the red backdrop originated from a Cuban funeral in 1960. The picture was taken by Alberto Korda, who passed it to a newspaper called Revolución. In 1967, the image was re-used by an Italian paper free of charge, where it was seen by an Irish artist named Jim Fitzpatrick. He reproduced the now-iconic image in 1968, which took off during French student protests. It was then reproduced by art forger Gerard Malanga, the work was authenticated by Andy Warhol himself so he could profit from its dissemination.

Via Daily Art Daily

Today, this final image has been used in products by companies including Gap, Urban Outfitters, Belstaff, Vans, and even Chanel. But of course, the t-shirt endures. In fact, satirical publisher The Onion sold a shirt of Che wearing his own image.

Dazed Digital also quotes artist Bruce LaBruce, who explained:

“(Terrorist chic is) when somebody wears a Che Guevara t-shirt and they have absolutely no idea who Che Guevara is – emptying out the signifiers of radicalism and using them purely for fashion”

And of course, it is one of my favorites….no comment.

Needless to say there are images that have created brands that have saved life’s and spawned movements. Ribbons are perhaps one of the best examples. gives a long history of the ribbon’s evolution, from its take-off after Penney Laingen, wife of an American hostage in Iran in 1979, tied yellow ribbons around the trees in her front yard, as a sign she hoped to see her husband returned. The yellow ribbons were eventually resurrected during the Gulf War as a sign of solidarity with the soldiers, and then the red ribbons of the AIDS movement…and then pink for breast cancer. By 1992, Think Before You Pink reported that the The New York Times declared 1992 “The Year of the Ribbon.”

And today, ribbons are still used by many as a way of branding a cause or idea…although I do have to say that we are just about ribboned out.

Via Nancy’s Point

Of course, one of the more controversial brand symbols was Livestrong, the cancer cure foundation of Lance Armstrong, before his doping scandal:

Nike started producing the Livestrong bracelets in May 2004 — an instant symbol of cancer-patient support, as Armstrong went for his sixth Tour de France win, and doping allegations began to heat up — and went on to sell 80 million of them. The global athletic powerhouse soon expanded the Livestrong brand to yellow exercise gear and much, much more.

A huge brand. The rubber bracelet was copied by every charity under the sun, creating yet another year of fads and trends around social change.

To quote Sarah Schulman, the author of the NYT article I began with:

“HOW DID we get from that to the highly visible, art-directed expressions of the late 1980s and early ’90s, which — as proven by the pink pussy hats and Black Lives Matter shirts of recent years — still resonate today?”

We still create Brands based in protest and need that will end up in popular culture as commercial goods. Why? Because these Brands don’t “disrupt” and create ephemeral noise with resultant high value for some, but rather, create dissidence.

Dissidence is a coming together of people, with a goal and purpose of change (mostly for good, but sometimes not). Its staying power and its ability to inspire and remain is far greater than that of Disruption… which, by the time it disrupts, has become the new status quo—and nothing is more boring.

While we are surrounded by Brands, some passing and some with great staying power, it is imperative to understand what drives longevity: human connection.

Long after Uber is remembered as nothing more than half a statement, Che will still be selling T-shirts.


“Defying branding, ultimately, will be the most successful strategy of all”

- Sarah Schulman

Dissidence, the creation of movement, will endure.

What do you think?

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