Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, brand identity, and two theories of change

Change drives everything, and the single most important recommendation we make to clients in brand identity, is how to structure that change. Is it a little or a lot, and often more importantly, what are the elements of that change, and how are they strategically shuffled.

In a recent column on change, David Brooks mentions the thinking of Yuval Levin in his dissertation for The University of Chicago. He talks about Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, who espoused two different approaches to change during the Age of Enlightenment.

Paine, a believer in the French Enlightenment, supported radical change, and looked at the American and French revolutions as examples. As Brooks says, “That something has existed tells us nothing about its value. The past is dead and the living should use their powers of analysis to sweep away existing arrangements.” Apparently Paine even suggested laws should expire every 30 years and be rewritten.

Burke, a supporter of the British Enlightenment, believed in gradualism. He “was horrified at the thought that individuals would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time. He believed in continual reform.  .  . You try to modify from within, keeping the good parts and adjusting the parts that aren’t working”

Brooks talks about these two forces in political terms and the impact they are having on our current political debates. I see these forces through the lens of brand identity.

Our clients come to us with firmly held ideas that represent both sides of this Paine/Burke argument, and we all know legacy brands have certainly been the subject of both incremental and radical change. The Tropicana brand was the recent victim of the clash between radicalism and gradualism. With apologies to Thomas Paine for associating his reasoned logic with Peter Arnell’s incompetence.

It might be interesting to look at two legacy brands, Coke and Campbell’s Soup, in this context.

Until recently they were both firmly in the Burke camp. Brands that were born in the 19th century, matured during the 20th century, and were firmly entrenched as global brands by the 21st century.  They believed in evolving slowly, relying on the classic visual elements of their brand, building on their equity, and growing successfully.

But they are now taking two different paths.

Coke is staying conservative, although the results of their package design system looks fresher, allowing for the spirited design flexibility of the seasonal cans shown above. It is brilliant in every way.

Campbell’s, perhaps for the first time in the 140-year history of the brand, is taking the more radical path of Thomas Paine and the French revolution. Although, interestingly, the final design would not be accused of looking like a radical solution.

Only time will tell whether their new reliance on a research technique, reviewed in this WSJ article, called “neuromarketing” will help build the brand. But the new soup can design is certainly a radical course, and as Paine and Brooks suggested uses the “powers of analysis to sweep away existing arrangements”.

As Brooks says in his column “We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation?”

Coke’s gradualist approach is certainly safer, even though it is yielding fresher results. It will be interesting to see if Campbell’s bolder move is successful. Only time and the markets will show whether it will be seen as a radical departure or an act of preservation.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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