Nothing But an Emblem to Protect You

“Red Cross workers don’t need guns to protect them in hostile environments. They only use an emblem. And it works. So gangster. #rulesofwar

For the first time, the Red Cross invited people to participate in our free International Humanitarian Law class from their home computers, and a virtual participant posted this tweet shortly after our Wednesday night class. She was alluding to a conversation from the class that basically went like this:

In-class participant: “So you’re telling me that the Red Cross delegate goes into an enemy prison, tells them all of the ways that they’re violating International Humanitarian Law and they have no army or court or means to enforce the law?”

Instructor: “Basically, yes. Humanitarian Law as laid out in the Geneva Conventions is largely enforced through the notion that we are neutral and enforce it for everyone, including ‘their own.’ The ‘enemy,’ is receiving the same benefit for their prisoners of war in another prison. Reciprocity, confidentiality and neutrality motivate detaining authorities to comply.”

In-class participant: “Who protects the Red Cross delegate? The UN? Police? Security? Do they carry a gun?”

Instructor: “It is only the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem that protects them.”

Now, what you need to know about me is that I’m a marketer, by trade. The Red Cross emblem is my logo to protect. To hear a conversation like this imparts a tremendous sense of responsibility and pride for me as the Director of Marketing and Communications at theAmerican Red Cross of Greater Chicago.


My logo keeps Red Cross delegates safe, here and abroad. The red cross logo communicates to people, regardless of the language they speak, that “relief is offered to everyone here” with the same level of recognition as men or women’s bathroom sign. It evokes a deep emotional response in the people who’ve been touched by it. Occasionally, I get seated in exit rows on planes, perhaps because airline workers assume I’m comfortable in a disaster when they see my Red Cross lapel pin. There’s a strange and mysterious power in our emblem.

I was a speaker at a Social Media Club of Chicago event last night. I discussed, “How has the Red Cross logo come to bear so much power and influence?” My opinion is that it is largely through a long history of action in place of words and shared values in place of rhetoric. But I don’t know for sure. I told the social media experts in the room that I suspect people who encounter our emblem “feel heard and held when they need it most.” I insinuated that our credibility may be helped by admitting to and learning from failures to better address the next disaster.

Prior to my speaking engagement at the Social Media Club, I attended a remarkable 2-day Cusp Conference that explores “the design of everything.” I heard about innovative programs that are using design principles to make the world a better place. Projects like Design for America at Northwestern University are revolutionizing how we solve the world’s most complex and gnarly problems.

So, in less than 48 hours, 1) I witnessed stellar examples of how better design can change our world at the Cusp Conference. 2) I discussed at the Social Media Club of Chicago how loyalty to an emblem or logo can play a part in preserving the dignity of humanity. And 3) I was reminded by our class Tweeter that in the hotbed of American violence — communities governed by gang warfare — Red Cross delegates might be understood by the people with whom they must negotiate for peace should the need ever arise.

And all of this got me thinking… What if the brilliant designers at Cusp applied their expertise to this goal: design a way to mobilize everyone who wants to help during a disaster in a way that makes the best possible use of their skills.

Here in Chicago, alone, the Red Cross respond to 3-4 home fires every day that require not only volunteers, but also greater awareness of fire risks. Before disasters like fires and floods occur, we need to motivate people to prepare for the unthinkable. People separated by war — soldiers and refugees — need to be connected through the Chicago Red Cross with their loved ones. We also need ambassadors who will help us explain that this response effort requires funding since we are not a govenment-funded entity.

Among the materials at your disposal in the design process:

  • loyalty to a relief mission
  • social media as an activation tool
  • your design expertise
  • an organization that might be willing to beta test your idea because we’re used to dealing with the unexpected and disaster.

You’d also have something else at your disposal. Energy — the remarkable energy that exists in the hearts and minds of people with an appetite for a better world.

Would you be willing to help with that? If so, let’s talk.



Written by Jackie Mitchell

4 responses

  1. The power of a brand is amazing. Especially in the case of war – how millions of people understand what the Red Cross emblem represents and their ability to respect that. I honestly can't think of another symbol/brand that is as well-known AND respected.

  2. it's an amazing brand! so much has been accomplished. yet, so much potential. it just feels like there is a whole new generation waiting to join you and push this to a whole new level. so let's lead them. let's inspire them.

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