On the evening before International Women’s Day, something unexpected happened in Bowling Green Park in New York. A life-sized bronze statue of a girl appeared, standing defiantly face to face with Wall Street’s infamous Charging Bull. She quickly became known as the Fearless Girl as she took the internet by storm. She is one of the best examples of symbolism in recent memory that speaks to the power of a single visual symbol for delivering a resounding message.
The plaque beneath her reads: “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” The statue was commissioned from artist Kristen Visbal by asset management giant State Street Global Advisors as part of a campaign to pressure companies to appoint more women to their boards. The statue has been so influential and so well received that a couple of online petitions emerged with over 40,000 signatures asking for the bronze girl (which was only intended to be a temporary week-long exhibit) to become a permanent fixture on Wall Street. In March the city of New York announced it would allow the statue to remain until February 2018.
The Strength and Fluidity of Symbolism
The power of a symbol lies in its socially constructed meaning rather than its literal form. In this sense, symbols are a type of shared knowledge whose meaning can shift and change over time or vary between cultures. Symbols activate complex brain networks that represent deep patterns of abstract thought and in this way can occupy deeply meaningful positions in our mental maps—ones that we understand well, remember, and can recall readily.
Because the meaning of a symbol is determined by the wider population that views and discusses it, symbols can be hard to control. We see this with backlash toward the Fearless Girl from people denouncing its connection to feminism and gender parity, claiming it’s nothing more than an advertisement for a company that only has three female board members out of 11. But whatever your view, there is no doubt that the statue captured the attention of the public and has managed to sustain the conversation well beyond what the firm anticipated. Likewise we see a shift in the meaning of the Charging Bull she faces: intended as a symbol of strength by the artist, the bull takes on a menacing air in relation to the girl. Such is the nature of shifting cultural interpretations.
Image attribution: Sam valadi
What Makes a Symbol Successful?
Companies face an immense challenge when it comes to harnessing symbolism in their branding and identifying visual elements that will stand the test of time. Target offers one of the greatest examples of symbolism to highlight. The company’s logo, a red dot surrounded by a red circle (a target) has remained iconic, its meaning unchanged by shifts in culture and technology over the years. Adweek cited a 2003 corporate study where 96 percent of shoppers recognized the logo, which actually prompted the company to drop the name “Target” and let the logo stand alone.
Marketers can take a tip from both State Street Global Advisors and Target when it comes to using symbolism to occupy a salient space in an audience’s mind, whether that be for static assets like a logo or for one-off marketing campaigns. These examples of symbolism share common elements. They are simple, unified visual cues that are unencumbered by accompanying explanation. They can stand alone without words and still convey meaning, and they represent ideas that are widely recognized and understood.
Another strong characteristic of these symbols is that they create a sense of place or relation to their surroundings in space. The target is the spot you are aiming for, and the action becomes getting yourself from where you are to the target. The tiny girl stands bravely face to face with the giant bull, and this spatial relationship of size, orientation, and stance adds depth to the meaning of the symbol. For the Fearless Girl, her physical presence invites physical interaction, and this space for action carries her message further. Think of all the selfies that were posted online and the articles with photos of people touching, hugging, and smiling next to the statue. When people can write themselves into the narrative created by a powerful symbol, that message acquires depth and longevity.
We’re all familiar with the cliché “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” but it speaks to the power of symbolism to activate complex meaning with a single visual cue. Campaigns like the Fearless Girl and brands like Target remind us not to underestimate the power of simplicity in marketing. With attention spans declining in an increasingly saturated mediascape, where the competition for eyeballs online and off is at an all-time high, the ability to communicate a lot with a little is becoming crucial for brands who still want to be heard.
Image attribution for Fearless Girl photo: Rachel Knipel
Featured image attribution: Zack Minor
About the Author
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