Are Your Symbols In Sync With Your Story?

December 13, 2016

By: Leslie Walsh

Last week, the Bank of Canada announced that beginning in 2018, Viola Desmond’s likeness will appear on our currency.

An icon of the human rights and freedom movement who defiantly refused to leave a whites-only area of a movie theatre in 1946 and was subsequently jailed, convicted and fined, Ms. Desmond will be the first Canadian woman to grace a $10 banknote.

The decision is a nod to our heritage and powerful women, and a moving proof point to Prime Minister Trudeau’s narrative on a more inclusive Canada. For communicators, it also reflects the powerful role that symbols play in effective storytelling.

At the same time, the bank’s announcement and the ceremony surrounding it shed light on the reputational risks that befall us when the symbols we choose are at odds with the words we use to talk about ourselves.

Case in point is this year’s American League Championship Series and the heated discussion around cultural sensitivity and sports nomenclature that extended beyond baseball fans and the ball park.

The debate galvanized a team of little league players – formerly known as the Alvinston Indians – to change its name and logo using a GoFundMe campaign to purchase new uniforms, equipment and signage.

United in the belief that “teaching respect for each other, respect for opponents and respect for every community we visit, is a far more important tradition than any name or logo,” the team exceeded its fundraising goal in less than five days and generated significant media buzz.

From the colour of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits to the shape of Nepal’s flag, opportunities for symbolism are endless. Not surprisingly, Merriam-Webster covers a lot of ground by defining a symbol as “an act, sound, or object having cultural significance and the capacity to excite or objectify a response.”

To “excite or objectify a response” or, in other words: the communicator’s raison d’être. 

If you are tasked with shaping and sharing your organization’s narrative, ask yourself: are your symbols in sync with the story you are telling?