by Mark A. Riccobono
From the Editor: Probably no one is asked more to recite, explain, and live out the values found in our brand than our President. Here are his thoughts about our messages and in part our tagline. What he says here is a wonderful blend of what the things we say mean both for his individual growth and for our continuing to prosper as an organization:
“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”
—Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
I was recently asked about our tagline, “Live the Life You Want" and why it has meaning for the National Federation of the Blind. I know something about this topic as I helped to coordinate the evaluation of the Federation’s brand that the board of directors undertook a couple of years before our seventy-fifth anniversary. More than that, I have been thinking about and participating in the understanding and development of the Federation for more than twenty years. Maybe by reflecting on my journey within the Federation and my journey to understand myself, I may help to illuminate why our brand has meaning and power.
I found the National Federation of the Blind in 1996. In short, I was living a life of faking that I could see things that I could not. I had no idea what techniques blind people used, and I had no idea what kind of life a blind person could pursue. Why would I? I was not blind; I was visually challenged. In reality I was a mess, standing on a fragile cliff where at any moment I would fall into a lonely and empty space in which I had no prospects.
When I came to the national convention of the Federation in 1996, I met blind person after blind person who said, “I’ve got you; I will show you how we do it; I will go with you.” They started sharing what they did and challenged me to think about how I could be better. I met blind people doing things I had never imagined I could or should do in my life. I was inspired.
I recognize that the notion of inspiration porn is real—the image of disability as something amazing and awe-inspiring for the benefit of making nondisabled people feel better about their place in the world—but this was genuine inspiration. I needed to witness that blind people were doing incredible things. The difference was, and still is today, that the inspiration was always accompanied by the message, “and this can be you, and we want to help you live out your dreams.” Now I was inspired by a lot of blind people that were doing things that I simply had no interest in doing. I did not have an interest in going into law or engineering, but if I am honest, I did not know what I wanted to do because I was still building my understanding of who I wanted to be—the life I wanted to live. Up until that point I had been pursuing the life I understood others believed I could achieve (one that was fairly limited).
I was welcomed into the Federation. I was invited to freely take advantage of every technique, resource, and idea I could find from interacting with other members. I heard people say how much they got out of being a member and from participating actively, but it was hard to understand what it was they got. Did they get free stuff, new technology, scholarships, tax breaks, or something else? I could not understand, so I started asking the friends I had made. They said the biggest thing they receive is building relationships with blind people in the Federation family and having a network of people across the country that can be called on regarding any question that might come up about blindness or life for that matter. They said it is about having authentic, honest, and sometimes challenging conversations—the kind of interactions best friends have in order to make each other better. They said, “just watch, and if you feel compelled, help out, and you will experience what we mean." That is exactly what happened.
Then I went to the general session, where I experienced the powerful strength of the collective movement. From the friends I had made in just a few days, I already knew I was not alone. The convention fully assembled demonstrated to me that a force that was very powerful had my back. This was not inspiration but real power, the power to change everything that was wrong in the way that society socialized and institutionalized the stereotypes about blindness. This was the power to change what I had internalized for twenty years and now had to try to get out of my system. I wanted to be part of this powerful force for change, not just take from it. The message I got was that it would be stronger if I helped with it.
Throughout the rest of the convention I got another message: that the National Federation of the Blind is innovative, smart, solution-oriented, and creative. This definitely appealed to my business and marketing chops. The Federation was not simply willing to live within society as it existed today but was actively working on designing and building the future. At that convention, the beginnings of NFB-NEWSLINE® were being discussed as well as other projects that have now made a big difference in the lives of blind people, and all of these projects were sparked by blind people themselves.
Inspirational, inviting, powerful, and innovative were all qualities I experienced at my first convention, and they remain the core traits of the Federation’s brand today. I could tell you all about my journey in understanding myself and the Federation since 1996. However, I think the editor would be forced to dedicate a special issue just to that writing. You should know that these qualities have helped me define what I want for my life. They also have helped me to discover that by contributing actively to the movement that is the National Federation of the Blind, I continue to refuel my understanding and make the world better for all blind people. This journey of self-development and community-building continues today and will until I have nothing left to give or improve. Due to the mentoring and perspective I have gained as a member of this organization, I am certain that I will always be working on doing better in my life or, as we say, living the life I want.
Let us return to the evaluation of the Federation’s brand, which started in 2013. The National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors decided that in advance of our seventy-fifth anniversary we should review and update our brand. Our President at the time, Marc Maurer, asked me to manage the project, and he appointed a number of Federationists to participate in the branding work. This ad hoc committee was comprised of newer as well as long-time Federation members with a demonstrated commitment to building the organization. At the beginning, many of the committee members were uneasy about the process. Questions such as "What's wrong with our current brand,” "Why do we need this, we are not selling a product; we’re a civil rights movement,” and "We do not need a consultant to tell us how to run our organization,” were on the minds of committee members and sometimes expressed openly at the first meeting. I remember that our President reminded us at the beginning that the Federation is always willing to carefully examine what we do and that we should not be afraid to say we can do things better. The message was that change is necessary for growth. Yet change is hard for most people to deal with, and it is difficult for people to understand that change does not mean what has been done before is wrong. Our movement continues to evolve as society changes, a necessary component if we are to have continued and perhaps even greater success in fulfilling our mission.
Our committee engaged in a number of conversations about where we have been as an organization and where we are going. The first step in that focus was gathering data from our membership, which happened in focus groups at our 2013 National Convention as well as through a series of telephone interviews with members. Obviously, it was impossible to capture data from every member of the Federation (at least to do this in a timely fashion), but we worked hard to capture a strong diversity of viewpoints. Our philosophy about blindness—the distilled understanding we have from the shared authentic experience of blind people—was at the center of our evaluation. As we identified elements of our brand, we spent considerable time and energy ensuring that we got the words right. Our consultants did a skillful job of facilitating our discussions and giving us a framework for success. They praised us for being much more heavily engaged in the process than any other organization with which they had worked. What they did not realize is how seriously we take ownership for our organization, and we wanted a product that reflected our growing understanding and not that of an outside consultant.
One of the last steps in the branding evaluation was examining our tagline. “Changing What It Means to be Blind” had served us well, but it was not consistent with the brand framework we have developed over the evaluation process. A brand is the reputation that you want to have. Our former tagline looked back to a time when blind people were fighting to get in the door and working to have enough influence that we could make significant change once inside. It also had the disadvantage of making it sound like we did not need new members. If we were already “changing things,” maybe we did not need help. Many of us struggled with the realization that there is still lots of change required in the public understanding of blindness.
How was it that this one little phrase, the tagline, could be the most complicated part of the process? I think it was because the tagline was personal for us. The tagline for our movement represented for many of us how we think of our role as individuals. I participate actively because I am changing what it means to be blind. The personal aspect makes sense because the tagline is intended to capture the attention of the primary audience for the organization. For us, blind people are our primary audience. As America’s membership and civil rights organization of the blind, the tagline has to speak to all blind people. In an organization that is built so strongly on individual contributions collectively focused, where we expect blind people to run it, and elect the representative leaders to coordinate the work, the tagline becomes personal as much as organizational. Although I have a bachelor's of business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Wisconsin, I had not thought of a tagline in the context of a membership organization and what it is intended to accomplish until getting into this project.
The committee grappled with many options for a tagline. A number of interesting suggestions were made. Each suggestion had to be tested against the new brand framework we had worked hard to craft—a framework everyone felt articulated where we want to go as a movement. An additional complication was that we made it a nonnegotiable priority that we would create a tagline that distinguishes our unique role in the nation compared to the hundreds of public and private agencies for the blind. We are a membership and civil rights organization of the blind, not just another agency or professional organization.
The committee presented a recommendation to the Federation’s board of directors early in 2014. The recommendation was to use “National Federation of the Blind Live the Life You Want.” The tagline is always intended to be presented with our name, so putting the word blind in was not necessary. The board considered the recommendation and rejected it. A subcommittee of the board was tasked with further examining the question of a tagline. After another two months, the subcommittee recommended to the full board that the tagline be, “National Federation of the Blind Live the Life You Want.” Let me save you going word by word to try to detect the difference. The tagline remained as it was submitted because it spells out as clearly as we can what we intend to do and who we intend to be for blind people. Clearly this tagline has been deeply studied and thoughtfully evaluated by some of the most dynamic blind people in the nation—a group of individuals who engage with thousands of other blind people every year.
For me there were two important realizations that happened in this process. When I was considering taglines, I thought of two things: about the blind people who have not found us and about the pictures on the walls at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. In our building we have pictures of a diverse range of blind people doing any number of activities—blind people doing things that many would not expect and at other times doing the everyday things that people do. I imagined each tagline as a caption for each of those photos. If a prospective member came to our building and they came across one of these photos with a tagline, would they connect with it. Furthermore, if an existing member came across that same photo and tagline, would they connect. Many taglines dropped off the list quickly under that evaluation. The only one that stuck every time was “Live the Life You Want.”
Our branding consultants were clear that choosing a tagline would not be enough. This is where the second realization connected for me. A tagline gains its power from being activated along with the brand. The tagline grows based on our continuing to move the organization toward that tagline. I began to understand that if a brand is the reputation that we want to have, then it only partially represents where we are today. The goal is to build the organization to the next level and keep it growing beyond what it is now or tomorrow or next year. So, the tagline should pull us forward and not merely reflect on the progress we have made. Using this measure, “Live the Life You Want” was the pull we needed to the future we seek as blind people. I was pleased that the board of directors chose this direction, and months later I was elected President of the organization and, thus, responsible for leading our progress toward fulfilling our brand.
I have heard all of the concerns about our brand and our tagline. I also continue to measure that against the tremendous benefits and success I have observed in our progress over the almost six years our brand has been in place. From our membership projects to our program development to our evolving organizational culture, our brand and our tagline have pulled us toward the future we seek. It is helping us grow to be even stronger and more dynamic as a movement. It is encouraging our investment in diversity and fueling discussions about questions we have not yet answered. It is part of our journey to living the lives we want. It encourages us to be better, and it makes everything around us better.
Two of the primary criticisms of the tagline are that it says there is a particular way that blind people should live. Others contradict this and suggest that it allows blind people to settle for low expectations—if I want to live unemployed and second-class, I can do that. Neither of these is reflected in our brand values or in the extensive process used to get us to this point. In fact, “Live the Life You Want” was very intentionally chosen because it represents our continuous work to raise expectations for all blind people and to welcome all blind people into our organization. Our movement encouraged me to do better than I was doing, and in fact, it still continues to do that. I fully expect that in twenty-five years or so when I consider retirement, it will continue to urge me to raise my expectations, and I anticipate with joy what that will mean in my life. I am thankful that I am surrounded by thousands of blind people striving to live the lives they want because it inspires me, gives me the power to activate the meaning of that in my own life and for the betterment of others, allows me to share in and contribute to the innovative ideas, and invites me to be part of a family of support. If you get past the words themselves and examine what the words represent in terms of where we want to go, I believe completely that you will find the same realization.
This journey is worth sharing, and we need you to be part of it. If you find areas of our organization where we are not meeting our brand values and where we are not honoring the spirit of "Live the Life You Want," then we need you to help adjust our practices so we are headed toward that future. This is why we went through the branding process. I am extremely proud of the work our members have done in the past six years to activate on our brand and drive toward that future we want. It works because we debate it, we talk about it, and we share in the journey and what it means to us. I want you to be part of that. Share what “Live the Life You Want” means to you. Share the value that you find in this organization and your ability to help share it as America’s membership organization of blind people. Also share in where we are not fulfilling our brand, and do your part to make it better for us. When I come across examples of our being off brand, I talk to people about it. Often I learn something from the conversation, and often others learn from me. Most importantly, our work together is better, and our journey together is more successful.
I am not sure when I will fully realize living the life I want. I have realized a lot of it because of the National Federation of the Blind. Yet, I still face barriers in society that prevent me from fully and easily living the life I want. I recognize the power of the Federation is the best chance to eliminate those obstacles. However, I also face barriers within myself that my Federation family helps me to overcome. Just when I think there is something that I might not do as a blind person, I find a blind person who is tackling that thing I thought was not possible. Some of those things I decide I do not want to do—I have no interest in climbing Mt. Everest—but others get on my personal development list. Whether it’s cooking something I had not considered, trying a new hobby, or just generally continuing to understand that blindness is not the characteristic that holds me back, it is the Federation family and our quest to live the lives we want that supports me in the journey. Join me, and together, with love, hope, and determination, we will transform dreams into reality.