Symbols of Belonging

Belonging and its symbols have been in the front line in the last week.

In the US, Michele Obama in her last speech as First Lady, said she wanted “Our young people to know that they matter, that they belong”.

Juventus, Turin’s world-leading football team, has a new logo with their President, Andrea Agnelli, saying they wanted to show “a sense of belonging and looking to the future.”

And the Army launched a new recruitment campaign with ads saying “This is belonging”.

Let’s see if we get any clues about how to make it all work, from the Symbols that represent being part of a nation, team or organisation.

1. The informal symbols are often most revealing
Michele Obama’s concerns were respectfully not labelled directly. A bitterly divisive presidential election has exposed seismic rifts about belonging in US society on fault lines of race, class and economic privilege. The nation’s formal motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ – ‘Out of the many we are one’ – is feeling strained.

Over the past months, while the Stars and Stripes have had plenty of outings in cartoons and coverage, some of the most powerful and emotive images have been around an informal symbol: the Statue of Liberty.

We’ve seen her holding her head in her heads, protecting herself from being groped, even running away into the Atlantic.

If it’s true that the health of a nation’s democracy can be judged by the robustness of its satire, then perhaps Lady Liberty can relax a little on her podium: with enough public accountability, surely all will be well?

As a new leader of any nation sets out, it’s worth watching the ratio of flags to policies: a heavy dependency on external symbols and slogans to invoke support has not always marked the heroes of history.

Time will tell.

2. External change matching internal reality?
Juventus, even to a non-pundit, is one of the world’s Godlike football teams, a byword for class, flair and reliable dominance. Did it really need a new logo to tell us this? Turin of course is a cradle of engineering and design excellence, so arguably it matters more to its fans, and certainly to its President, he of Fiat’s Agnelli family

But do the elegant spooning letter Js of the new logo really make fans feel they belong more than before?

Football tribes define themselves in bold terms of sight and sound: the strips, mascots, scarfs, chants, impromptu songs that everybody seems to know instantly around the stadium. Juventus’ sense of belonging is surely tightly wound in civic as much as sporting pride. Its fans will feel part of it because of shared bonding through victory and defeat not because a new logo and positioning statement tells them to.

Another word of warning here. Belonging does not automatically increase with a swanky new brand. The graveyards of corporate reputations are littered with elegant logos, the detritus of rebranding. Juventus pulls it off but glossy symbols on the outside do not mean a sense of belonging on the inside.

3. Sharing the story from the heart of belonging
Authenticity was one of the top buzzwords of 2016. Fakers do not turn into makers: it’s either genuine or we feel deceived. The Army has gone in hard on authenticity – and wins compellingly.

Its new ad campaign, presses one of the buttons that defines soldier’s belonging: camaraderie. It speaks if commitment and dedication. The films are mini-stories, believably realistic, showing rather than telling us about what it means to be part of the Army: sticking together through thick and thin, quietly offering support, knowing you’re never alone even when you feel very exposed.

It’s compelling, believable and motivating. For those of us not inclined to sign-up to the forces, it might make us view the commitment of others in a more respectful light.

All achieved with no extraneous symbols, no self-conscious logos, no flashing of regimental colours or cap badges, no jingoistic flag waving. Instead the symbol is a commitment, a deeply-held ethos for camaraderie and good fellowship to comrades and discipline behind military mission.

So what can we learn?
Belonging is an act of membership not just ownership. It is more powerful when it is gained willingly through commitment rather than demanded through blind allegiance to symbols.
It’s clear that the symbols of belonging carry great weight – and responsibility. Use them wisely.


We’re continuing our exploration of belonging and over the next few months will share more case studies with lessons learned.
Come and learn more at our next seminar on 9 February 5:00pm ‘How to connect culture, strategy and governance’
Email to reserve your place