A brandman’s holiday

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All the popular annual holidays are built around clearly recognized, authentic brands—core symbols, colors and language inspired by a mission statement that people understand and that brings them together in common cause. Christmas is red and green, with evergreen trees, snowflakes, gold stars and “merry, jolly, bright.” Halloween is scary black and orange, with jack-o-lanterns, black cats, witch hats and “trick or treat.” The Fourth of July is red, white and blue, stars and stripes, firecrackers and “God Bless America.”

St. Patrick’s Day is as simple as it gets: it’s green, and it’s shamrocks.

I’m Irish American, and I’m a branding professional; so every March I shudder as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. I’m not so much offended by the lazy stereotypes and sloppy frat boy behavior—what makes me grit my teeth is all the visual and verbal inaccuracy that rolls out to celebrate and commemorate the holiday. The guidelines aren’t written down anywhere, but St. Patrick’s Day has an established visual identity but no one seems to care when the execution is so careless and so wrong.

The shamrock is a centuries-old symbol of Ireland, used by St. Patrick as a metaphor for the Christian Trinity because it has three leaves. But nearly half of the posters, greeting cards, t-shirts, buttons, tiaras and novelty eyeglass frames I saw on the day that everyone is Irish were adorned with (expletive deleted) four-leaf clovers. Not the same thing at all. I was also disappointed to see the Obama re-election campaign trying to woo Irish American voters by releasing t-shirts for St. Patrick’s Day with the “O’Bama” name (funny!) above a big four-leaf clover (pathetic!). Where’s the respect for the brand?

So, I’m a traditionalist. As Easter looms, I am comforted by the rules and standards I am familiar with: bunnies, chicks, jelly beans and marshmallow Peeps. But if corporate and organizational brands can become stale and irrelevant over time, is the same thing true for holiday brands? Is it okay (or even necessary) to refresh the ways we represent these stories?

Why not? You should check out some really interesting work commissioned by the radio show Studio 360, from PRI and WNYC. Hosted by Kurt Andersen, the program’s Redesigns series takes ubiquitous designs and gives them a 21st-century makeover.

For each project, listeners send in their ideas and then a professional design firm prepares a formal strategic presentation. Among the topics they’ve tackled over the years: Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

What holiday brand do you think needs some rethinking?

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