Brandmarks of the Republican Primary—The Rise of Branding in Politics
Over the past year, the Republican Party went through the process of finding “America’s Next Top Republican Presidential Candidate,” also known as the Republican primaries. It was a long, drawn-out journey with no clear frontrunner until this past Spring (spoiler alert: it’s Mitt Romney!). Every month there seemed to be a new favorite candidate as the Republican Party was striving to find messaging that aligned to their core belief system, which was in the process of shifting itself. As the Grand Old Party continued to define who they are and what they want as a unified front early in this 21st Century, there were nine candidates that stood above the rest as a possible party leader. Each candidate, no matter how moderate, had the task to appeal to the desires of the conservative base of our country. We’re talking traditional, American, I-might-possibly-own-a-bald-eagle-as-a-pet Republicans.
Riding the wave of the successful, coherent political branding from 2008, each candidate gave brand identity a shot. I could dive into each individual brand based on their tone of voice, photography, social media strategy and overall messaging—but in a culture that thrives off of 140-character tweets, I’ll keep it to just the brandmarks.
Early on in the Republican primary, the idea that the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, might not have been 100% serious or invested into his presidential campaign floated around the 24 hour newsfeed. Some even insinuated that his campaign was more about promoting his newly released book rather than getting elected. His brandmark seems to back those theories up. Speaker Gingrich’s brandmark utilized Times New Roman (sans kerning, mind you), a typeface that is not only the token default type for many digital applications and platforms, but is also the most commonly used typeface in book design (insert irony). The red and blue colors he used were default Adobe Illustrator swatches and the star shape is exactly the same as Illustrator’s star shape tool. Close examination of Gingrich’s mark indicates there wasn’t a whole lot of time put into the details. As a designer, I notice these nuances, or lack thereof, and it starts to make you question the strategy and foundation of the brand itself.
When I first saw Jon Huntsman’s brandmark, I thought I’d stumbled across a new chain of hotels. The brandmark for Huntsman is a mark for an international business-minded man. What stands out about this mark is how unpatriotic it is, relatively speaking, lacking stars and stripes. The cloudy blur form under the type looks like it’s only there because they forgot to use blue in their color palette. The mark feels corporate with the static boxed “H” and charcoal Gill Sans typography. Its straightforward serious tone fit the identity of Jon Huntsman in the public sense. In the end, the look and feel of the mark, like Huntsman’s persona, didn’t prove to be what appealed to the Republican base of America.
Another Gill Sans advocate, Tim Pawlenty’s identity was one of the more unique and fresh options of the Republican primary. Tim (or T-Paw as he went by on his campaign’s website) wasn’t one of the frontrunners heading into election season. He wasn’t radically controversial or gregarious in nature. He’s sort of a normal guy who had worked hard as the Governor of Minnesota. In his 2012 brandmark, the flag was a simple illustration but managed to avoid being cliché. Both the type and illustration held a subtle texture, humanizing it and appearing more approachable. The color palette was rich and serious but not overpowering. I’m guessing the large “Y” decision was made to balance out the type, but it makes me want to say his name “PawlenteYYY!”. I’m not quite sure if it is strong enough to say “President of the United States,” but his brandmark—like his campaign persona—was appealing enough that he was a finalist for the vice presidential position.
As a member of the Republican Tea Party and the only female running for office of the President, Michele Bachmann was truly a unique candidate from the start. Her brandmark, however, was anything but. Close your eyes and go back to a time before political branding took off, where all it took were stars, stripes and all-caps type. That’s what the Bachmann campaign utilized. Bachmann was one of the candidates who seemed to have the most grievances with current President Barack Obama, but that didn’t stop her campaign from using the same [German] serif typeface that he did in 2008: Palatino. Nothing about this brandmark says anything authentic or helps communicate who Michele Bachmann is. The stripes floating over the crossbar of the “H” are expected and the mark is bland—while everyone who knows anything about Bachman knows she isn’t.
Ron Paul is another candidate who was different from all the others from the start. He’s a seasoned House Representative, Libertarian and former doctor who has run for President of the United States three times. He already had an established, fervent base of supporters unlike any other candidate in the Republican race. Did I mention he’s a Republican who opposes military action? The guy is different and his campaign developed a brandmark as interesting as he is. Minion, the typeface Paul utilized, is an American type used by many prestigious universities for their identities. The deep navy mark communicates strength and the faded eagle adds a bit of dimension and trust. I’m not sure what the purpose is behind the confetti-like crossbar of the “A,” but just like Ron Paul, it’s a bit unexpected.
A former US Senator, Rick Santorum is very much a fundamental, traditional Republican. A lot of his beliefs and values resonated with America’s conservative base, boosting him to a frontrunner position toward the end of the primary. His ideas were clear and simple, just like his brandmark. There are no bells and whistles. His typeface of choice is Baskerville, an Old English face known for its quiet refinement. The eagle, literally flying through the stars as the “O” in his last name, is even done in a traditional American illustrative style. The mark lacks somewhat in strength, as Baskerville leaves a lot of whitespace around the forms, and the color palette falls a bit flat. If anything, this brandmark does little in the way of evoking any sort of emotion, which is unfortunate due to the immense passion Santorum showed throughout his campaign.
Businessman Herman Cain might be one of the more unconventional candidates for president our country has seen in some time. He is a Washington outsider, mostly unassociated with American politics. He was the CEO of a pizza restaurant, is outrageous in character and boasted a decisive and unforgettable “9-9-9” plan for America’s financial problems. His personality and attitude were new to the game, yet his brandmark fell flat. While the torch icon can be seen as a symbol of hope, it wasn’t a part of his campaign messaging. The colors are rich and strong and as patriotic as you can get, but it’s hard to connect the brandmark to Herman Cain himself. At all times—in almost every public instance—he was referred to by his full name, “Herman Cain,” (even often by himself in third person) and not “CAIN.” The Georgia native did use the Georgia typeface, which was appropriate in the most literal way.
Before his infamous “oops” moment at one of the Republican primary debates, Rick Perry came blazing out of Texas and into frontrunner status almost immediately. He’s a man’s man, strong and bold in tone, yet handsome and suave in his manner. There was never any doubt that he’s a full-blooded American. This southern candidate, like Herman Cain, also used the Georgia typeface to allude to his roots. His brandmark radiated stars and stripes, but was not nearly as bold or strong as Rick Perry’s personality. His brandmark’s biggest downfall was its restricting nature—designed as a shiny, oval button.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, Willard Romney. This guy has been running for President of the United States for four years. Physically, he looks like an American president: he’s a tall, strong, handsome, middle-aged man. He’s successful and there’s no hiding the money he’s accrued from his business successes. He dropped his first name and uses his more approachable middle name, Mitt, instead. His brandmark stood out from the beginning as different, even though his persona didn’t especially. The color palette is sterile, for the most part swathed in subdued corporate gray tones. When I first saw it, I immediately thought of Aquafresh’s mark. Once you get past the minty fresh exterior, you’ll notice the similarity to Obama’s “O” logo from 2008. It’s as if the initial strategy was to take the letterform of the “R” and do something different with it. Different, but still American. Whether you like the “R” or not, it’s noticeable and memorable. Beyond the “R,” the typeface is Trajan, also known as the “American Movie Font” for its use on almost every movie poster ever created. Trajan is dramatic if nothing else, again, it catches your attention.
Looking back on the Republican primary, I tend to lean towards Ron Paul’s as the strongest Republican primary brand identity. It wasn’t perfect, but it had the necessary indications of patriotism, transparency and strength. All of these attributes served to mirror much of his personality as a candidate and American citizen. As time has passed, however, it’s clear why he wasn’t selected as the Republican nominee for President. The lesson here is that while a carefully crafted, consistent and holistic brand identity can help a candidate effectively communicate their position and policies, it cannot change, mask or alter who a candidate truly is. If a candidate’s policies and ideological beliefs don’t resonate with the majority of their audience, aesthetics alone won’t bridge the gap. Now that Mitt Romney has been officially anointed the Republican candidate for president, it will be interesting to see how he continues to evolve and leverage his brand in his showdown with President Obama.