Blue State’s Marie Danzig on using design to make the world a better place

Marie Danzig is head of creative and product at Blue State, a values-led creative and campaigns agency that partners with leading causes and companies to help them transform how they engage with audiences. Founded in 2004 and headquartered in Brooklyn, its clients include UNHCR, Amnesty International and Tate Modern, as well as companies like Google, Co-op and Nesta.

Specialising in online fundraising, advocacy, social networking and constituency development, Blue State is on a mission to make the world a better place. And that’s nothing new for Marie, having previously worked as deputy digital director for the Obama presidential campaign (2012-13) and as head of online fundraising for the World Food Programme (2010-12).

We chatted to Marie to find out what Blue State’s corporate and charity clients are looking for, how she engages them and delivers concrete results, and what making a difference looks like in the world of 2022.

What makes Blue State different?

Blue State is more than an agency. It’s a place where people can work on the causes they care about and inspire them to take action. We’ve helped elect presidents, change laws, change opinions and raise millions of dollars for non-profit organisations. And we also connect people with companies in meaningful ways.

Over the past couple of years, the world has experienced one crisis after another: from pandemics and war to racism and gun violence. And it’s felt great to be working with partners who are knee-deep in these fights. To coach brands on how to engage. And to find and feel that solidarity among one another.

What kinds of things do your clients ask for?

Among advocacy and non-profit organisations, there’s always the question of scale and how to make an even bigger impact? How can we reach more people? How can we do more good in the world?

In terms of companies, there’s been more of a shift into purpose-driven work and beyond CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] campaigns and activities. Those are important and a good way for companies to direct their profits. But now, more and more companies are truly leading with purpose. They’re afraid to take a stand and see how this will help build their customer base and increase customer loyalty.

Work for Co-op © Blue State Work for Co-op © Blue State

Work for Co-op © Blue State

How do you feel about the role of social media in all this?

I have very mixed feelings, for sure, about social media. It’s probably recently been used for more harm than good. And that’s not only the bad actors; we see these studies and negative impact on things like self-image and health. Plus, the platforms themselves are making it harder, in some ways, for organisations to reach the people who can help them in their good causes in the name of transparency or data privacy.

It’s still a bit of a necessary evil. So we’re continuing to evolve on these platforms and figure out how we can continue to mobilise communities. But it is getting harder.

You led the digital efforts of Obama’s campaign, which was themed on hope. But do you still have that hope for the future?

Yeah, absolutely. We have been through some dark times with the recent school shootings and the moves to end abortion rights. And so even our staff who are truly committed to these causes feel the weight of these crises and are extremely personally affected. It’s hard to show up when you feel so knocked down. But this is exactly when we need to continue the fight and not become complacent or despondent.

Indeed, it’s part of our job: to come up with ways to inspire and mobilise people, to inject hope in a way that actually resonates. Especially as people have become quite cynical. There’s less trust in institutions and organisations. And so, helping organisations overcome that, and continue their momentum, is just so important.

Creativity plays a big role in choosing the right imagery and words. But also in helping organisations nail down their theory of change so that we’re meeting the mood and helping people rise to the challenge.

So, how does that look in practice? Can you talk us through what you did for Amnesty, for example?

Sure: I love talking about our work with Amnesty International! I’m proud of what we did in partnership with them. It’s an incredible organisation with deep roots in grassroots mobilisation and collective action to end human rights abuses.

Amnesty needed to evolve to remain relevant and effective in its work. And they felt they weren’t being representative and inclusive enough in their marketing and branding. So they asked us to help develop a new global brand platform that would resonate with and inspire the next generation of advocates and supporters.

We knew we wouldn’t be successful unless we got out there and ensured that all voices were heard. So we ran co-creation workshops with dozens of representatives across the globe; I think it was in six different countries. As a result, we built a brand positioning that puts hope and humanity at the core of the brand story and helps reframe human rights for the 21st century.

You’ve also done work for Co-op: another good cause.

Co-op is a fun example of applying our mobilisation strategies and expertise to a company that’s always been committed to social good. Community organising has been part of their model since the 19th century. But they wanted to build a more sophisticated programme and increase their impact. They wanted to do more than your standard CSR campaign and truly transform communities; really get in there and make a difference.

So we helped them build a model to engage their customers at a grassroots level. Not only online but offline; marrying that digital activism with field organising, and with platform and technology development. So it was a really nice combination of expertise that we were able to offer, and it’s been really rewarding to see it grow and continue to engage people in local activism.

Work for Amnesty International © Blue State Work for Amnesty International © Blue State

Work for Amnesty International © Blue State

Work for Amnesty International © Blue State Work for Amnesty International © Blue State

Work for Amnesty International © Blue State

With these massive projects, where do you start?

We like to say it all begins with the people. So making sure that we’re listening to the right stakeholders and finding out: what exactly is the challenge? What are the objectives, what are the needs, and what are the considerations? And so, it begins with a massive discovery and strategy phase that puts the user and the people at the centre.

Depending on the project’s size, scope, and nature, that strategy phase can look very different. But we have a lot of tools to analyse the audience, making sure that we’re listening to the data and not just our gut. Doing a lot of stakeholder interviews, surveys, and focus groups. And just make sure that we have all the right information and grounding to build a solution. Because the most dangerous thing you can do is jump straight to a solution without fully understanding the needs.

You’re smiling as you’re telling me this. Is that your favourite part of the process?

I think it’s a differentiator for us at Blue State; how much value we put on that phase and how it can transform how you do the work. Some other agencies invest in the trendy or flashy thing, and we really go for that real and lasting change and impact. Sometimes it’s not the easiest or sexiest path. But it’s the right one. And Blue State is generally in it for the long haul, whatever you need to do to truly build that change and transform the way your organisation functions or the way you deliver to communities.

So, when you’ve done all that process and made the difference, how does it feel?

Seeing your work activated out in the world is just so fulfilling. For instance, to see a visual identity that you worked on at a bus stop in your “real life”. And just making an impact in the world and accelerating change. We at Blue State just want to hasten progress. And so it’s beautiful to see all your blood, sweat, and tears show up in the world.

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