Redesigning an Appropriated Brand Identity in a Complex Polarized Culture

A convergent mixed-methods pragmatic approach to the redesign of the Chief Brand Identity

Clinton Carlson
Associate Professor
University of Notre Dame

Chief Industries has utilized an appropriated image of a Native American for over forty years. External factors pushed for a shift in their use of this symbolism, however, in the design research process it was discovered that internal contingencies strongly opposed the elimination of the symbol. Chief’s third-generation CEO faced a dilemma in how to respond to these pressures.

A transitional brand identity system that invested in establishing a broader and more consistent brand identity could allow Chief to navigate the internal and external political environment; minimizing internal corporate cultural disruption, while also taking tangible steps toward a more appropriate and ethical brand identity system.

In working with Chief Industries and my collaborative partner Huebner Integrated Marketing, we utilized a convergent mixed-methods pragmatic approach to the redesign of the Chief Brand Identity. Interviews and surveys of corporate leadership, employees, partners, and customers gave insight into perceptions of the Chief brand and corporate culture, while a brand audit helped identify deficiencies and opportunities in the current brand architecture and applications across touchpoints.

Chief Industries has seven North American brands, eleven divisions on three continents, and 1,400 employees. The family-owned company was founded in 1954 and is currently lead by the grandson of the founder.

The research process identified 1) a fractured brand architecture and identity system, 2) gaps between corporate and division leaders in the perception of the Chief brand, and 3) risk to dramatically shifting the brand identity among some divisions and their employees. The transition to a new generation of leadership factored into the decision to build an identity system that would establish clearer brand architecture, build equity in elements outside of the Native American icon, and allow for the eventual elimination of the Native American icon.

This presentation looks at how one designer navigated a polarized setting and strove to provide an ethical design direction with an understanding of the complex systems in which their client existed. The presentation will discuss the role of designers as advocates and the ethical dilemmas faced when working with commercial clients. It will raise questions such as: How should we balance our role as advocates with the responsibilities of serving clients? Should we balance these two? Is incremental change enough?

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 6.3: Fordham University on May 16, 2020.