From crux gammata to swastika

What was possibly the most significant event of the 20th century, the Second World War, would not have occurred without the power of branding. The most powerful, potent and controversial brand and branding programme ever must be that of the National Socialists of Germany, the Nazis, supported and underscored by Hitler’s personality. Look at the identity of the Nazis: the infamous black, bold, angular and perfectly proportioned, modular, clockwise-hooked swastika – the base turned through a 45° angle for more of a dynamo-like, dramatic effect – symmetrically centred and restricted on a contrasting, formal, clinical white circle against a dominant field of blood red. Applied as an armband, it was punched out on neutral grey or blue uniforms and even more so on black, exclusively worn by the elite Gestapo.

Red was reserved for use in insignia for the generals and senior staff officers, and for trim such as the lapels of a general’s greatcoat and the vertical stripe down uniform trousers. Borrowed from Roman times, and not by coincidence, are the standards (or banners) so effectively used in mass rallies, capped by the spread-winged noble eagle, clutching the wreathed swastika as well as the prominent use of the Black Letter typeface.

In the late 1930s, Germany was at the forefront of the arts with the Bauhaus movement, headed by the architect Walter Gropius, who designed some modern sans-serif typefaces, still in use today. Not surprisingly, the Nazis saw this institute as too liberal and freethinking and chose a typeface that was in total contrast and reflected instead the proud heritage of the Fatherland and the nationalistic far-right conservative. What could be more perfect than the decorative, heavy gothic type, dating back to the Rhineland of the fourteenth century, contrasting so beautifully with the contemporary clean lines of the swastika?

Before the advent of colour TV and when black-and-white TV was still in its infancy, the Nuremberg mass rallies on Partei-Tage (Party Days) helped to play the role of building the visual brand. Massive multiple red standards, emblazoned with the swastika on a white circle, symbolised and reinforced the power wielded by the contrasting small human figures of the Nazi leadership on a monumental platform at the top of a flight of stairs.

The cinematographic branding masterpiece of all time

Leni Riefenstahl, the German director who made the now-famous film of the 1936 Olympic Games (still rated as the best-ever documentary and propaganda film), was commissioned to film the Wagnerian Nuremberg rally of 1934. The result was what must be the cinematographic branding masterpiece of all time, called Triumph of the Will. Staged over five days, there were countless giant, so-called blood-banners or standards on display and a monolithic spread-winged eagle with a wingspan of over 33 metres crowning the Zeppelin field.

Hitler took the salute of hundreds of thousands of men in uniform, addressed a mass of Hitler youth and took a long walk the length of the vast Luitpold Arena through the parted ranks of 50 000 SS-men, and all this was enhanced at night by 130 anti-aircraft searchlights. Colour would not have done justice to this monochromatic potent piece of Nazi promotion, and the normally restrictive black-and-white treatment was used for maximum graphic effect. The stark black swastika on a white background against a field of blood red and the grey mass of uniforms, sometimes shot at night, reproduced perfectly in monochrome newsreels. This was also valid for the other mass medium of the day, the newspaper. This is proof of what the good use (or lack) of colour, as determined by the ultimate application and frequency of use, can do to build a brand.

The Nazi brand architecture was expanded (but not corrupted) down the ranks with the spread-winged eagle, clutching the wreathed swastika as insignia on caps and steel helmets. The addition of the skull and crossbones was worn under the eagle by the greatly feared Gestapo. Double lightning flashes forming the letters ‘SS’ were worn on the lapels of this corps and after “the night of the long knives”, the internal purge by Hitler, their brown shirts and jackets were replaced by the regulation grey of the German military.

Branding by the Nazis did not stop with their own, but was even extended to the perceived enemy within: the non-Aryans – die Juden – the Jews. A yellow Star of David set on a grey armband was compulsory wear for all Jews, and literally branded and sadly marked them for the final “solution”.

Hitler was just as focused and single-minded about making his personality a brand. With the narrow disciplined moustache, sometimes capped, wearing a plain uniform, usually a brown shirt or a tie and crisp white shirt with camel-coloured jacket (in striking contrast to the black, blue or grey uniforms of his subordinate militia and perhaps serving as a reminder of “the night of the long knives”) lacking any insignia of rank except for the solitary iron cross positioned on the left breast, closest to the heart, and the red swastika armband worn on the left arm (again the arm closest to the heart), a leather belt and highly polished jackboots forming a pedestal, accentuating his control with the distinctive Nazi salute, this whole image was a reflection of supreme power, ultimate discipline and stern, nationalist pride not to be questioned or challenged by anyone inside or outside Deutschland.

What made the Nazi branding even more remarkable was the relatively short time (less than a decade) it took for a nation of seventy-odd-million to buy into the brand, and this was all done without the aid of today’s modern sophisticated mass media and the budgets now available to politicians.

The power of branding

Today the swastika and what it represented (the Nazi movement under Hitler) stands for all that is evil: suppression, the mass extermination of Jews through gassing, brutality, summary execution, concentration camps, racism and a world war that is far removed from its original benign symbolism in Buddhism – the sign of good luck and prosperity. (The Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to the swastika as the crux gammata, a pre-Christian cross, because it could be constructed from four Greek gammas ( Γ ) attached to a common base.

Designers and analysts hold the opinion that Obama won the 2008 US presidential election not because he got the majority of the American vote, but because he used the new media on the web so effectively in his campaign to reach and mobilise his target audience: the younger, liberal, computer-literate, web-surfing, brand-embracing generation to come to the polls. Spearheading his “Hope/Change” media campaign is the now familiar O brandmark – designed back in 2006 – with the powerful, appropriate winning “Hope/Change” theme. He cheekily consolidated his victory by having the first-ever brandmark designed for “The Office of the President-Elect” (complete with the regal eagle as symbol).

This is the power of branding. Imagine Bin Laden, Robert Mugabe or Kim Yung Ill exploiting branding the way Hitler did. Imagine a brand manager like Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Thank God, these politicians have not yet used branding effectively. Now imagine what you could do with proper visual branding.

Alexander Greyling is the Author of Face your brand! The visual language of branding explained and is one of South Africa’s top branding experts. In his eBook he provides indispensable facts and logic for creating a successful visual brandmark through his seven essential elements of a successful brandmark.