More sophisticated presentation is cause for celebration, not concern
Are our unions becoming a bit like football teams? We’ve come a long way from the lively, ornate, melodramatic fabric banners that used to typify any labour movement march of significance.
Now it is very much a ‘team colours’ approach: Gold-and blue for PCS, red-and-white for Unite, blue-and-white for one teaching union, white-and-blue for another. Turquoise-and-orange for a third. Purple-white-and-green (Unison), black-white-and-orange (GMB), Burgundy and gold (CWU), green-and-white (RMT).
It’s not a question of size either everyone is at it: NAPO (two shades of blue and a dash of green), Equity (purple-on-white) and BECTU (blue-and-gold) — soon to merge with Prospect (two shades of blue).
Allied to colours is often an image — or more usually a shape. The CWU’s double wave, or the TUC’s 3-by-3 shaded grid.
But whether letters or shapes or both, these are clearly very different from traditional union imagery. And so union demonstrations have arguably become homogenised and therefore somewhat sterilised, superficial, more concerned with image than substance. At least that’s what critics — conservatives with little and large Cs — might say.
I’m going to disagree here and strongly. Far from giving-in to commercialised and bland marketing values, we have just become a lot more aware of the concept and practice of branding.
Look at the benefits it can bring — from an organisational and media perspective, you can readily identify ‘your’ people. And they can identify each other too. You’re wearing the same colours as me — you’re one of us. It facilitates a sense of community for members.
It is also a short-cut to recognition for the outside world, literally in the case of QR codes. People who want to find us will know what to look for. But common branding is also a short cut to a set of values.
We want both our members and the rest of the world to know what we are about and that our work is important. That collectivism and community spirit is more important than undiluted and uncaring individualism. That workers are entitled to health, safety, fair pay and job security. That we get things done and give people a voice.
But we want people to ‘get’ this as easily as possible. We don’t have the time or resources to engage every individual in debate about what we do and how and why we do it. Branding for the trade union movement can provide that quick link and give us greater reach.
Of course it’s not a magic bullet, things rarely are. Branding is a double-edged sword, especially if one acquires unfortunate associations. And such an approach will only work if there is suite of supporting measures — an integrated media strategy with clear and common strap lines, hashtags and so on.
And a level of consciousness among activists that ensures they actively disseminate key messages by understanding that they have a union identity, and give life to it online.
For the labour movement to survive and indeed flourish we need to be smart and sassy. We need to be easily identifiable and easy to connect with. In a global, digital and robustly free-market economy, we need to use what generally works, tempered with an understanding of how to make it effective for our key issues.
Simon Sapper is a trade unionist and member of Unions21Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.