Design Matters: ‘Tis the season of brand warfare

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.As the holiday season draws near, we are inexorably drawn into a vortex of conflicting emotions: joy in the anticipation...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

As the holiday season draws near, we are inexorably drawn into a vortex of conflicting emotions: joy in the anticipation of festivity; angst in the anticipation of familial tension; nostalgia in the anticipation of familiar rituals, and, fear in the anticipation of the inevitable expense.

It is a season of contradictions, a time when a creation as sublime as Handel’s Messiah must rub shoulders with a cliche as hackneyed as the annual Canadian Tire Christmas commercial.

For retailers, it represents the azimuth of the sales curve, a make-it-or-break-it month that keeps the lights on for the rest of the year.

How did it happen that the season of peace became a season of brand warfare?

Ironically, the answer lies not in the history of commerce, but in the history of the church.

Though priests and ministers will beseech the faithful to remember the true meaning of Christmas, it was the church that created and refined the models upon which brand warfare is based.

Until the reformation, the Church of Rome was the most visible brand in western civilization.

It was the Coca-Cola of its time, with a hammer-lock on the religious market from Constantinople to County Cork.

The church was, therefore, the first multinational corporation, and the creator of the first and most pervasive corporate identity of all time: the sign of the cross.

Just as Coke can be found in every corner store in the world, so could the crucifix be found in every corner of medieval and Renaissance Europe.

For several centuries, this trademark remained unchallenged. And, it held its position without the benefit of mass communication.

In fact, it was the onset of mass communication that began to erode the Church’s monopoly on salvation (its most important product.)

With the invention of printing came the spread of literacy. People no longer needed the clerical elite to interpret God’s word for them; they could read it for themselves.

Thus, reformers such as Martin Luther began to steal market share from Rome, much to the alarm of the Papacy.

So threatening was the Reformation that the Catholic church mounted the first and perhaps greatest global marketing strategy of all time: it called it propaganda fide, or propagation of the faith.

This was the time of exploration and colonization, and while the kings of Europe competed with each other to claim new territories, the cardinals of Rome competed against reformers to claim new souls.

In a worldwide direct marketing campaign, the Catholic Church sent out cadres of missionaries (the first international sales force) to win souls (customers) as far east as Japan and as far west as Peru.

That the majority of Christians around the world to this day are Catholic is a testament to their success.

The problems that confront global brands today were no different then.

Take brand regionalization, for instance. It was invented by the Jesuits.

While in Japan, they abandoned their traditional black robes in favor of the orange robes worn by Buddhist monks. Thus, they were willing to adapt their corporate image to local conditions, winning foreign market share in the process.

Even private label was prefigured by the tactics of ecclesiastical warfare.

Henry the Eighth was the Dave Nichol of his day, vowing to beat the big boys in Rome at their own game.

Tired of having to answer to the Pope, he invented his own brand of religion and called it the Church of England.

He wrote his own set of canonical laws, personally selected his clerical elite, and beheaded anyone who stood in his way.

Within a few years of his proclamation, the Church of Rome lost almost all of its market share in the British Isles.

And, it is to the British Isles that we must return to wrap up the theme of this column, for Christmas, as we now know it, with the decorations, the gift-giving, the carols and the ritual engorgement on turkey, is a Victorian invention.

It was also in Victorian England that capitalism hit its stride, and Christmas provided the perfect vehicle for unloading inventory.

With all the paradigms of competitive branding refined by centuries of religious warfare, it is no coincidence that these two phenomena should come together to make Christmas the commercial colossus that it is today.

O come, all ye faithful. Boxing Day awaits.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.