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'Je Suis Charlie': Branding a Movement

by Liz NicklesFebruary 2015

From the devastation of the at the Paris offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, a new clarion call emerged:  “Je suis Charlie!”  As Parisians took to the streets to protest the murder and devastation, a cartoonist penned the phrase, “Je suis Charlie,” meaning “I am Charlie,” to say that, “We are all Charlie,” standing vigil to protect the paper’s rights, and journalists’ rights to do their job and come home alive.  There’s no denying that this phrase took off phenomenally via social media. But is this growing sentiment problematic?

Looking at “Je suis Charlie” from a branding perspective, and also from a cultural perspective, it’s interesting to note that its commercialization also happened very quickly. Social movements, religious movements, and civil rights movements rely on the ability to spread word and get their themes out to the masses. “Je suis Charlie” has been a very powerful theme, and as it grew stronger, so did its controversy. For instance, the theme was, not surprisingly, quickly trademarked, but you have to wonder what’s going to happen to the integrity of a theme when, as happened in this instance, someone trademarked it in the laundry detergent category. It’s always interesting how opportunists hijack trending topics for financial gain. This is not unusual, especially now that social media exalts numerous phrases and themes at such a rapid pace.

Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, observes, “I think the reason why we saw this sort of a magical moment emerge in Paris is because everyone is united against terrorism. So all the Parisians came out, and many people across the world even started saying, “I am Charlie, Je suis Charlie.” But then Muslims began to think, are people going to perceive this as people uniting against Muslims?  And so very quickly, I began to see, ‘Je suis Ahmed.’ And then it turned out that the police officer who was shot and was killed mercilessly happened to be a Muslim. And the first person who was killed—at least that’s what the reports say-- in the Charlie Hebdo office, was a Muslim. You began to see, it’s not only about Charlie Hebdo; there are other people who have died who are also Muslim. So really we have to unite around this cause against terrorism.”

To see the impact of leveraging a phrase to identify with a cause, we can similarly look back to 1963, when John F. Kennedy visited Berlin and, in response to the Berlin Wall, said “Ich bin ein Berliner”-- “I am a Berliner.”  “Whether it’s ‘Je Suis Charlie,’ or ‘Today, I’m a Sikh,’ or ‘Today, I’m a Muslim,’ or ‘Today, I’m a Hindu.’  Basically people, together as a group, are saying, ‘We reject not only terrorist attacks, we reject that which is not human,” says Khan.

But, following the Paris attacks, “Je suis Charlie” was not the only phrase that was being spread on social media. There is an iconic picture of crowds taking to the square and holding up a letters that read, “Not afraid.”  Those words were not focused on a particular right—the right to free speech, or the right to be able to draw the Prophet Muhammad -- but were more about being able to unite everyone in feelings, passions, and our right to live as we go about our daily lives.  Is it possible that, in its lack of specificity, that this phrase “Not afraid” was even  more impactful than “Je suis Charlie?”?

Charlie is, at the end of the day, a publication, a business.  Would “Not afraid”—words that were less event-specific, and, arguably, longer-lasting—be verbiage that would resonate with everyone, but would offend no one? Or is the very specificity and emotional volatility of “Je suis Charlie” the point? Further, is it too easy to lose sight of the real emotional intent of any theme once it’s gotten into the hands of commercialization?

“What is happening,” says Khan, “is the phrase is creating a conversation. It was an emotional response, everyone rallied around those who died mercilessly, and innocent people were gunned down.  But now, the conversation is going deeper into the root causes and what we can do about fixing those.”

“A conversation is what is needed-- that is what creates movements. Movements get started with an incident, and then it’s the conversation that actually reshapes a society. It was when American children came home and said, ‘Why are we segregated from black children?’ When conversations in the home begin, that’s when you see change in a society. So I think these kinds of moments and incidents are watershed moments that ultimately have a deeper societal impact.”

Although impactful, complex issues and devastating incidents cannot be boiled down to a hashtag.  One of the realities—and problems—with social media is the attempts to coin an entire movement with a single hashtag. Themes, tweets and memes can ignite the conversation, but the conversation itself is the key to taking it to the next, and meaningful level.

Listen to the full podcast titled Je Suis Charlie:  A Uniting or Dividing Theme?

http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/brandzillas

By Liz Nickles and Tynicka Battle 

Tynicka Battle is CEO and Founder of Tynicka Battle Digital.  Liz Nickles is President of Black Label Brand Development and author of BrandStorm. Daisy Khan is Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, a non-profit organization dedicated to building bridges between the Muslim community and general public through dialogues in faith, identity, culture, and arts.

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