In his inauguration speech, President Biden (phew!) declared the US to be “Restless, bold and optimistic.” He was, in effect, rebranding the country. Our Crowd Signs team investigates...
Under the Trump administration, Brand America underwent some serious semiotic shifts. The consistent news feed of arrogance, ignorance and lies untethered the idea of America from its long held position as a dreamland of freedom, opportunity, courage and comfort. As the world looked on, how could US brands continue to leverage their own exceptional American-ness in an aspirational way?
And, more importantly, what can they do now that the pendulum is shifting toward America as a humble (but still tenacious) crucible of hope and unity? Using a semiotic lens, we’ve analysed a selection of US brands that are delivering against Biden’s vision of a restless, bold and optimistic America.
Restlessness: Discovering New Frontiers Within Ourselves
Apple is a brand associated with the pursuit of knowledge. We need only look at the crisp bite taken from the eponymous logo to know that when we buy into the brand we’re buying into courage and a hunger for understanding beyond the limits of everyday thinking. The comms around the Apple Watch Series 6 represent a continuation of this restless discovery. Product imagery is a direct reference to Space Age depictions of technology and the surfaces of planets.
The deep, dark background, glowing lights, close ups and abstracted images of ambiguous terrains all combine to code the idea of an out-of-this-world discovery. It’s an opportunity to explore new worlds; not out in the universe, but within ourselves.
The brand plays perfectly into the sense of American restlessness for the new by channelling the Space Race, which is strongly associated with American ideas of greatness. And as, post Trump, America emerges from a period of discord, division and literal walls, Apple allows the restless consumer to see that the final frontier is within themselves. The experiment can begin again – and this time, it’s about self reflection, not expansion.
Boldness: Proud, Playful Self-Validation
As women around the globe are increasingly encouraged to embrace their natural bodies and accept their visible ‘flaws’, Parade’s narrative of boldness deeply resonates. The name itself communicates pride and uplifting celebrations of the body. Its uneven, red and white all-caps lettering and oval lock-up resembles retro American signage and logos. Together, this codes boldness as returning to the fun and excitement associated with vintage American pop-culture (but with a distinctly modern celebration) grounded in internal, rather than external acceptance.
With minimalist backdrops and assertive poses, Parade borrows cues from the classic US clothing brand American Apparel; known for its voyeuristic and risqué boldness in the mid 2000s. However, American Apparel’s boldness, which demanded conformity to Eurocentric standards of beauty, primarily for male enjoyment, is modernised by Parade. Imagery of stretch marks, tummy bulges, blemishes, diversity in body size and ethnicity, along with consumer generated photos, codes inclusivity, self-acceptance and proud authenticity.
This combination signals boldness that is flexible and self-defined, empowering everyone to embrace their realistic selves. This emergent boldness connects particularly well with Gen Z consumers, as they demand and expect authenticity, inclusive community building and nuance from both brands and institutions, including the US government.
Optimism: Personal Determination
Typically, the Coca-Cola brand has been about celebration and savouring a particular moment. The cursive Spencarian script codes a hint of premium, but also a 130-year-old tradition. Previous campaigns, like the yearly Christmas adverts and ‘Open Happiness’ have used conventions of celebration – popping (cap top) bottles, bubbles, and personalised packaging – to code Coca-Cola as a sentimental toast to good times.
In 2021, the Cola-Cola brand of optimism is shifting toward active determination. Language on the site features strong calls to action that code both resolve and support, with mission statements of ‘together we can, must, and will’ do better and bring about change. The Open To Better campaign foregrounds this literally, replacing the brand logo on the can with customised resolutions.
The repetition of the first person direct address, ‘I will’, codes this new positioning as a mantra and also a pledge. This is not ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ – it’s articulating a much more committed optimism, where your hope is insured by personal resolve, intentionality and accountability. This new brand of optimism is about informed and articulated purpose, factoring in the reckoning of a year of global protest and demands for greater accountability, both on a personal and institutional level.
As we have seen, Brand America cannot simply shrug off the political and cultural pains of the last four years. To do so would be to continue the line of domineering bluster that characterised Trump’s presidency. But hope always remains and it’s clear that hope will have to work hard to rehabilitate the image of America; both for Americans and people around the world.
Look out for an upcoming instalment of Semiotics At Crowd where we tackle Brand Britain post-Brexit – how can the UK maintain its cultural relevance while undermining its cultural relationships?