York: Human Rights City

Branding, messaging and vision. Bringing commercial know-how to an amazing concept for the people of York

If there’s one thing that floats the good ship Plump it’s lending our commercial savvy to projects born in a completely different world.

Big vision

York: Human Rights City is just such a project. Led by a network made up of the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights, the police, city council and various other organisations, the idea has been gathering momentum since 2011.

The vision was to name York as the UK’s first human rights city - joining more than 30 such cities around the world, all committed to putting human rights at the heart of policies and practices.

With our national media often outspoken in its criticism of human rights legislation, taking this idea public was likely to be a tough sell.

Branding humanity

As the day of declaration loomed, network leaders Stephen Pittam and Professor Paul Gready came to Plump to chat about how we could help turn their laudable ideals into a concrete concept that the people of York could get behind.

Clearly, this was going to be a knotty one. But what a vision: we were in.

Narrowing the goalposts

One of the biggest challenges was to agree what York: Human Rights City was going to achieve, stand for and believe in. This network of passionate, committed members were all broadly moving in the same direction but if we were going to sell this to York, we needed utter cohesion.

What’s more, everything was peppered with academic jargon: meat and drink to the people involved but Joe Public was going to struggle.

Even though we were looking at a very unusual ‘sell’, we agreed a branding workshop was the only way to thrash out a viable brief and agree on priorities and goals.

Strategy plus a big pot of coffee

So we agreed a date, packed as many committee members as possible onto Plump’s sofas and kicked off. On our part, we talked any non-commercial people through basic branding concepts and explained why the audience - not the client - is king. In turn, they clued us up about their dreams and visions and took part graciously in our ‘daft’ exercises.

A few hours and several cups of coffee later, we’d all discussed our way to an agreed understanding of human rights in general, why they’re important and what this project was going to mean for York.

We narrowed down the audiences, metaphorically walked a mile in their shoes and sharpened our ideas about what we could meaningfully achieve. We threw values around like confetti and painted masterful pictures of our goals.


Turning concepts into brand

Waving goodbye to our guests, the hard work began. We were fired up by these huge, far-reaching concepts - but how could we translate them into words and branding that were widely accessible, without selling them short?

Things began to fall into place when we started chipping away at the mountain of heartfelt aims our workshop had uncovered.

The ‘aha’ moment came when we realised the network’s real purpose was to be a catalyst for human rights in York. And that word turned out to be the key to unlocking the whole project.

We realised we could sum up these disparate values in terms that spelled out the word CATALYST, to help audiences understand what the project was all about.

Swiftly from there, we worked with the team leaders to create this vision statement:

From words to logo and look

Building the visual branding was just as tricky. The concept of human rights is global by definition, with all the disparate cultural pitfalls that go along with that. The issues tackled are deeply immersed in the world of politics - but have to sit above party squabbles and vested interests.

What does that mean in terms of visuals? It means a surprising number of colours, motifs and images are firmly off-limits.

But then our research unearthed a free-to-use, universal symbol of human rights; the winner of an international competition. It was perfect. This existing, clearly-understood graphic image was beautiful - and it wasn’t going to cause unintended offence. Open source licensing meant we could adapt it, tweaking the colour and adding our text.

We built York into the branding and developed a set of colours to help define the ideas. Such a visionary project called for a bright, optimistic palette. The dilemma was, though, life and death issues need gravitas too. The final selection was a serious but uplifting set of colours, a few tones away from primary and off-set with muted grey shades.

From there, we were able to incorporate this look and feel into existing materials, such as a set of icons that illustrate the five priority human rights chosen by the people of York.

What we learned

Our commercial clients sometimes struggle to find and express their inspiration. This project was the opposite.

The network was bursting with big ideas - possibly drowning in them. Not to mention their struggle to nail ways to ‘sell’ them to the people of York.

By bringing our sharp-end industry know-how to the project, we helped our clients strip back the big ideas to core messages. And we were able to package them in a way that feels comfortable and inspiring to a brand-savvy public.

Need help expressing your brand’s vision. Call Rob on 01904 924108 or email me.