In a recent post on WhyDev?, Josie Stewart provides a sharp critique of the branding practices of aid agencies such as USAID and DFID. Stewart argues, that by slapping their logos and slogans (i.e. USAID’s “From the American People”) on buildings, billboards, car doors, and food packaging, these aid agencies are actually working against their purported principles of local ownership, self-determination, and capacity building. According to Stewart:
All of this branding serves as an inescapable and depressing reminder of the dependency of the nation and its inability to provide for its own. It is a constant message: you live on hand-outs. Your basic needs, as much as they are met, are only done so through the charity of faceless others.
For their part, agency heads tend to justify branding as a means of increasing the “transparency of aid”, informing taxpayers where their money is going, and improving the image of the donor country among recipient country citizens.This justification does little to satisfy Stewart. When brand recognition “starts to drive development strategy and funding priorities rather than the other way around,” the line between aid agencies and advertising agencies becomes disconcertingly blurred.
However, we cannot deny or ignore the power of branding to create awareness of a product, service, or cause. In her award-winning book and documentary, NoLogo, journalist Naomi Klein examines the power and influence that brands such as Nike, Starbucks, and McDonald’s hold over our society.One striking example of this power comes during a moment in the film when a group of children are shown pictures of famous public figures – the president, actors, etc. Some of the children correctly identify a handful of the images shown but, for the most part, they show few signs of recognition. The children are then shown various brand logos – the golden arches of McDonald’s, the Nike swoosh – without the actual name of the company. The response is dramatic. The children correctly identify almost every image shown, some of them nearly jumping out of their seats in excitement to identify a particular brand logo.
For better or for worse, branding is a powerful tool for creating awareness and demand for products and services. But why do we tend to focus solely on the negative aspects of branding, rather than the ways it can be used for good? Instead of railing against the branding practices of multinational corporations and aid agencies, we should be figuring out ways to coopt their strategies and put them to work for the greater good.
This is exactly the approach that organizations such as BrandOutLoud and Brandaid Project have taken. Recognizing that international NGOs have disproportionately greater access to branding, marketing, and communication expertise – and therefore donor funding – these organizations have committed themselves to creating that capacity within local NGOs who are often overlooked by international donors. By strengthening the brand recognition and marketing strategies of local NGOs, these organizations are helping to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of local NGOs and staying true to those principles of local ownership, self-determination, and capacity building that the development community prizes so highly.
Maybe what we really need is fewer Band Aid solutions, and more Brand Aid solutions.