[Originally published in Applied Arts Magazine February 23, 2015]
One lucky charity is about to receive $100,000 in branding services from Ottawa-based communications agency Stiff as part of its new Brand Zero initiative.
Ottawa’s PTS, a centre supporting and advocating gender diversity, won the contest on February 19 following a month-long nomination process over social media in December. The Stiff team reviewed the applicants, created a shortlist of five charities and produced a suitability video for each of the five finalists before choosing the ultimate winner to receive a complete brand and marketing strategy overhaul.
“We’ve found over the last 30 years, we are always working with people who can afford us, and who can afford to get their marketing message out,” says James Hanington, Stiff CEO, of why he started the Brand Zero program. “But we live in a city with people who are doing monumental things — if only they had the money to put it out there.”
PTS won the contest for a number of reasons, Hanington says. “We thought we could do the most to help PTS out of all the other [shortlisted] charities. We know PTS has the opportunity to connect with Ottawa, but also with people across the country. They serve kids out in farmlands who feel totally isolated, who have no idea there are people in the world just as questioning as they are,” he explains. The challenge of crafting an identity for a charity that supports the idea of not needing any one identity is what drew Stiff to the project. “We’re excited about PTS because it’s going to require us to stand on our heads.
Hanington, who took over his father’s long-running business six months ago, has turned what was formerly known as Stiff Sentences, a writing agency that penned everything from prime minister speeches to brand reports, into a full-service communications agency called Stiff. The company remains the only ISO-certified communications firm in the country. Hanington credits his millennial viewpoint as a boon to the revamped agency because he’s able to help established companies change their communications strategies to reach younger audiences. “The fun thing for us with PTS is that usually we’re talking to older, long-serving companies, and with this we’re going the other way. Plus, it’s topically important,” he says.
As far as the new branding is concerned, one of the key things Stiff and PTS will consider is a name change. PTS started in 1984 and was formerly called Pink Triangle Services, a name borne out of what had become a popular identifier with 1970s gay rights advocates, who had reclaimed the symbol from its original use — a badge used in Nazi concentration camps to identify homosexuals — by turning it right-side up and colouring it hot pink. While the pink triangle has since become a symbol of gay pride, Hanington asserts that its association with gay men specifically alienates other members of the queer community.
“One of the concepts we’re talking about is this idea of having a user-generated, user-centric brand. We learned that every time people gather at PTS, they say how they are identifying that week. It’s called gender fluidity,” he explains. “We want to take this beautiful idea that you don’t have to have a specific identity and put that into the brand.”
He suggests that visitors to the PTS website may be able to create their own custom branding by changing the logo colour to reflect who or what they’re identifying with at that moment. “We’re looking at a set of design components that can be swapped in at the click of a button,” he says. “This way, we can be reaching people in those rural communities, and through digital experience, branding and design, they can feel that same sense they’d get if they were in Ottawa at PTS’s physical space. They don’t have to be that one thing.”
He acknowledges the challenges of designing for such a broad community and stresses the need not to estrange any one group of people. “[The branding] is the first impression people are going to look at,” he says. “We want to make sure we’re going into this to learn and immerse ourselves in what they do. We know their worlds are constantly changing and that we can’t be an authority on the subject. With this, we’ve got to make sure we’re not pushing in one direction.”
The team at Stiff plans to meet with PTS organizers for a weekend workshop in March to nail down the final branding plans including messaging, colour palettes and design, all of which they hope to roll out by early April. Hanington says he plans to continue the Brand Zero program this year and beyond, possibly opening it to a public voting process and to charities across Canada.
Want to see the branding Stiff creates for PTS? Stay tuned to The Brief for a follow-up in April!