“Statues serve as a time capsule between the past, present and future. They have power to tell all aspects of the society. They are symbols that carry meaning and are instruments of expression, communication, knowledge and control. They are political.” Mulualem Daba.
In the past week, a movement targeting statues of slave traders and racists historical figures across the UK took the spotlight in society and in the media. The debate around statues is fascinating: it has shown how racism has been engrained in the shared narrative of the nation, it indicates a shift in how people interpret their identity and understand their history, and puts the focus on immediate action (led by the people) to build an anti-racist society. This is the most relevant conversation happening today for people, society and businesses, and incredibly important for strategists. Here’s why.
Statues as shared narrative
The previous week, the mood of these #blacklivesmatter protests was set as people said loud and clear they wouldn’t wait anymore for change. So after years of campaigning to remove the statue of slave trader Colston in Bristol, last Sunday people took the matter into their own hands. They toppled the statue, pushed it into the river, and took ownership of empty plinth by making it a BLM space of protest. The two photos below are clear evidence of the change in the symbolic landscape of Bristol’s city centre.
Colston’s statue in Bristol last Saturday, and the empty plinth surrounded by BLM placards on Sunday
We need to understand that there is a cultural politic of memory and heritage. Statues commemorate patriots, heroes and heroines, transmit mythical histories, preserve cultural heritage and legitimise authority. They also create a shared narrative of “our” history and become a source of public identity. As Brian Ladd said in The Ghosts of Berlin:
“How statues are seen, treated, and remembered sheds light on a collective identity that is more felt than articulated.”
Statues become part of the background and we don’t walk around continually reminding ourselves of our national identity, but that doesn’t mean that the nation isn’t continually representing itself to us in our daily lives. And that is very important for those of us working for brands and businesses because while bronze stands still, ideology and perception changes, and adapting is mandatory. Strategy is narrative, narrative is strategy: it structures the way a brand should be perceived, its place in the world, and the way it interacts and adds value to people.
A shift in views
When tensions arise, two ideas of what constitutes a shared identity start to compete. On Monday, the Labour Party announced that all statues in Labour councils across England and Wales would be examined for links to slavery and plantation owners. On Tuesday evening, the first statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was removed by Tower Hamlets Council, live-streamed on Twitter and celebrated by the Mayor of London.
Live-streaming makes it an even more powerful message. The media has a particular privilege of constructing social reality, and the live locates human experience, gives us the effect of ‘being there’ and allows us to talk about it with others.
Public spaces structure our everyday physical, emotional and social experience of place and identity. That’s why seeing the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square boarded up in preparation for protests is uncanny. The opposing views are in plain sight, the necessary tension needed for any good narrative or strategy.
Action, strategy and the opportunity
We know that strategy is nothing without direction and a plan of action. If the goal is an anti-racist society, then individuals, society, public sector and corporations will proactively contribute to that goal, and toppling Colson’s statue is the first action.
As strategists, we also know that in order to create a sound strategy, we need to understand and diagnose the problem. Right now, we’re going through a cultural rearticulation of who ‘we’ are as a society. Established narratives are being challenged within the cultural landscape, which not only reflects society but also brings to life values and political, ethnic, cultural and economic struggles. Half of our job is understanding this context: as Rob Campbell (Head of Strategy at R/GA and ex Wieden+Kennedy) said, “If some strategists think politics isn't part of culture or culture isn't part of strategy, they've got some really big issues they need to work on.”
This debate around statues is just one of the many ways a crisis in national identity manifests in the material world. It’s evident that there’s an appetite to introduce something that is more ‘us’. The opportunity is there for a British brand to own that cultural insight and explore it with what it could be decade-defining creativity.
Hi, it’s great to be writing to you again. Last week I lost some readers but also had some important chats with you over email and in social media. So thank you for reading, for sharing your thoughts with me, for reaching out to have important conversations, it’s been really cool (just hit the reply button to get in touch). I continue with my mission to not be so hard on myself. I hope to see you soon.