A Historical Perspective—The Rise of Branding in Politics
It’s that time again. Every third commercial on television is political and websites you browse are plastered with ideological banner ads. Each campaign has a platform, a message and an agenda. To get elected, politicians need you to buy into their product. Sound familiar?
As a designer, I have the opportunity to work on crafting the messaging and shaping the face of what brands look like every day—from global brands such as STX, to a start-up like Cintrifuse, to a national organization like the National Runaway Safeline and a higher education institution like SUNY. This experience has driven my personal passion for branding, as well as its role in political strategy. It’s what I wrote my senior thesis on in college. I believe politicians and their campaigns are a close relative to any brand looking to make a crucial connection with their consumer—and the similarities between the these two worlds are striking.
With the November election just around the corner, there’s no better time to dive into how a candidate’s positioning and brand expression have the power to make or break their presidential bid and win your vote—not to mention what other brands stand to learn from this constant contest with a measurable winner. But before I delve into this year’s race, I think it’s important to take a moment to gain a little perspective by reflecting on the history of political branding.
BEFORE BUMPER STICKERS
Since the United States’ inception, presidential candidates’ strategies for campaigning have constantly evolved to keep up with changing forms of media, the whims of their audience and the election process. It’s easy to forget that before Reagan had bumper stickers and Obama had a Twitter account, presidential candidates throughout history had carefully considered campaign strategies.
The first real presidential race in 1796 pitted Federalist Vice President John Adams against Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson (the previous President, George Washington, had won the executive position unanimously following his unprecedented leadership during the American Revolutionary War). The race between Adams and Jefferson shaped up to be a heated rivalry—despite the fact that candidates were chosen by an electorate of rich, land-owning white men by something they called “legislative choice” rather than popular vote. Campaigning wasn’t really even necessary.
In 1828, as legislative choice began to die out and the popular vote gained importance, campaigning in earnest became a necessity. Candidates were no longer speaking only to certain segments of the electorate, but to all men. To wow and appeal to their new constituencies, political propaganda and memorabilia were born.
The Democratic candidate that year, Andrew Jackson, began utilizing his nickname “Old Hickory” to portray an image of strength. His grassroots supporters even placed poles made of hickory all around the country as a campaign tactic. Republican John Quincy Adams used print media to his advantage, blaming Jackson for the deaths of American soldiers in the War of 1812, painting him as a murderer. Adams’ campaign even used coffin imagery on posters to represent each killed soldier and to drive his point home (brings a whole new meaning to attack ads, no?). Andrew Jackson prevailed, becoming the seventh President of the United States, thanks in large part to the grassroots efforts of his supporters and the use of memorabilia to deliver messaging to constituents.
MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE
A turning point in how elections were run came during the 1960 presidential campaign with the advent of the presidential debate. Now, instead of judging and forming opinions solely on the tone of someone’s voice and the content of their speech, voters began to form their opinions by watching them in action.
As a brand builder, I know that a brand is an experience and each exposure counts. Politicians began to realize this too during the 1960 election when Richard Nixon, fresh out of the hospital, found himself standing next to a young, handsome, athletic and charismatic John F. Kennedy on national television. Americans listening to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, but viewers of the same televised debate picked Kennedy as the winner by a landslide. Kennedy’s virile image helped catapult his brand over Nixon’s, even if his ideas weren’t necessarily any better. It was quickly becoming apparent that political brands hinged on so much more than ideologies or even logos and bumper stickers.
ONE NATION, UNDER A HOLISTIC BRAND, INDIVISIBLE …
While logos aren’t new in political campaign branding, coherent and consistent communication systems are. Simple, bold wordmarks were the cornerstone for candidates’ brand messaging for decades, and they all looked the same: American. Color palettes of deep navy and bright red, icons of stars and stripes and bolded, all-caps, sans serif typography shouting the last name of the political hopeful were ubiquitous. I think Armin Vit, owner of UnderConsideration.com, put it best in 2008: “If a candidate wants to be American, they must look American.”
Political artifacts and memorabilia were forever changed when Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007. Working with designers and strategists from his home base in Chicago, Obama created a fresh, holistic communication system for his White House bid. Regardless of personal politics, the beauty and effectiveness of Obama’s brand is evident. Americans wanted hope and they got it; from the Palatino/Gotham typeface combinations, to the bright, optimistic photography—everything laddered back to the fresh, “new day in America” messaging.
The oppositional brand of Senator John McCain had been leveraging his military background with a black and silver color palette and Optima typeface (the same as what’s used on the Vietnam Veteran War Memorial). The photography was mostly black and white, depicting heroic imagery from his time as a soldier in Vietnam. Over the course of the campaign, as the gap in the polls between Obama and McCain grew, McCain’s website suddenly transformed, to exactly mirror Obama’s in a last-minute attempt to adopt a similar hopeful message. Unfortunately for McCain, it didn’t work—Obama won by a sizable margin, in large part thanks to his consistent, coherent and holistic campaign branding and strategy.
The history behind branding and Presidential campaigns is incredibly interesting and it’s exciting to see how it continues to change everyday as the 2012 election season unfolds. When you vote for a candidate, you’re not just voting for their policies or party affiliation, but also their personality, attitude, appearance and beliefs—in essence, their brand. No candidate is perfect when it comes to their policies, strategies, personal lives or even choice of typeface, but it’s interesting to realize how branding influences your decisions before casting your ballot in November.