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Photo of Democratizing Branding with the Pussyhat (Our First Annual Brand of the Year)

Democratizing Branding with the Pussyhat (Our First Annual Brand of the Year)

Written by Debbie Millman

November 15, 2017


In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the term, “The medium is the message,” and ushered in the notion that both the message and the medium of that message influence how any communication is perceived. In the Insta-culture of the early 21st century, it can be daunting to navigate through the meta-data to find the meteoric. In an effort to understand, measure, mark, and codify the meteoric, competitions have been created to determine the excellence and impact of messages. We have competitions to designate awards to advertising, design, promotion, public relations, point-of-sale, direct mail, click-throughs, and so forth.


All of these competitions require an entry fee and more often than not, a complicated entry form to complete which must detail and justify the ROI, the KPI, and the reach of the entrant. But what happens to brands and products that don’t enter these competitions? These brands might not be aware of the competitions, or they might not be able to afford the hefty entry fees. These potential worthy entrants are all but ignored.


The School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding program wants to challenge and democratize the rules of these contests. For the first time ever, the esteemed faculty of this program have taken a sweeping look at commerce and culture and analyzed thousands of brands to identify the First Annual Brand of The Year. There was no entry form to fill out, no entry fee to pay. In fact, there was no effort at all by any brand to be considered for this award.


In an effort to determine this designation, we began with designer Walter Landor’s dictum, “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind,” and quickly realized branding has an interpretive aspect. As in semiotics, where a sign needs to be interpreted in order for it to be considered a sign, a brand does not exist until it is identified as such. It needs an audience of minds to create it. Only then, can it gather and move audiences, followers, or believers.


Business sees branding as the purview of business. And it’s easy to fall into this mode of thinking. Agencies, marketing departments, public relations, and media are all businesses themselves, caught up in a solipsistic ecosystem of brands. Brands promote other brands, partner with other brands, buy other brands, and appropriate the symbolism of other brands.

Branding is now inextricably linked to the way in which society, culture, the environment, and business interact. At this particular moment in our world, the discipline of branding has more impact on our culture than any other creative medium. 


We are now at a tipping point in the way brands are being created. Branding has finally become democratized, and the results are not about the commercial. In that spirit, the SVA Masters in Branding program has chosen the First Annual Brand of the Year: the Pink Pussyhat. Conceived by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, a screenwriter and architect from Los Angeles, CA, with the pattern designed by Kat Coyle, owner of The Little Knittery knitting shop, the hat was created to be worn at the Women’s March in Washington, DC, the day after the Presidential inauguration. The brand launched in November 2016, the name of it an intentional response to President Trump’s recorded comments about his ability to “grab (women) by the pussy.” Over 10 million women wore handmade pink pussy hats at or in support of Women’s March’s worldwide on January 21, 2017.


The hat was not initiated for financial benefit. It was created by the people for the people to serve the highest purpose of branding: to bring people together for the benefit of humanity. It has become a symbol for a movement. It is universally recognizable. It has united an audience in an unprecedented way. It is a brand, but it is more than that. The Pink Pussyhat is proof positive that branding is not just a tool of capitalism—branding has the potential to become a profound manifestation of the human spirit.


Image Credit: Creative Commons

The curriculum for The Masters in Branding Program allows students to create frameworks to guide brand, design and business development, critically evaluate brand, business, marketing and design strategies and Master the intellectual link between leadership and creativity. Learn more...


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Debbie Millman
Chair, Co-founder


Emily Weiland

Director of Operations, Graduate Advisor


Steven Heller
Co-founder, Faculty Advisor