An Analysis of Presidential Visual Identities—The Rise of Branding in Politics
Like the political junkie and designer I am, I anxiously awaited the arrival of 2012 to see how each candidate’s brand would stack up against the other in the constantly evolving world of politics and modern design strategy.
Four years ago, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama changed the way campaigns are run. It was no longer just about platforms, slogans, buttons and patriotic bumper stickers, but instead a coherent system of communication marketed to the desires of the American people. The messaging was emotive and the aesthetics were borderline ethereal—and nominee Barack Obama’s understanding and precise articulation of his personal brand is what catapulted him into the White House.
Now, four years later, with the 2012 presidential election drawing to a feverish conclusion, I’m excited to take a close look at how Obama’s brand has evolved since 2008 and how the candidates’ brands appear side by side.
President Barack Obama
Prior to launching his run for re-election, the big question was, what is Obama’s messaging going to be? When we last saw Obama during a campaign, “CHANGE” and “HOPE” were the very essence of his messaging. Similar to 2008, in 2012 there are still several opposing perspectives on the current state of the economy. With that said, Obama has chosen to simply remain optimistic and steadfast in his tone of voice as our country’s present leader.
Slogans and Social Media
The 2012 slogans “FORWARD.,” “FIRED UP!” and “READY TO GO!” all have one thing in common—they’re actionable. The slogans are dynamic and have a call-to-action tone. The social media presence of the Obama campaign is absolutely massive in scale and always on. His avatar is friendly and his cover photos depict him actively interacting with diverse crowds of people. This grand illustration of outreach shows he cares about YOU, no matter who you are. The Obama campaign also launched “Dashboard” this summer, as a means to organize local campaigns across the country, in one spot—online.
Obama’s visual brand has continued to evolve and is a more refined version of his 2008 campaign brand. The “O” logo from 2008 is back, but acts as a secondary asset to subtly tie back to the campaign that engaged millions of Americans. Retaining the “O” logo seems to almost to say, “Yup, he’s still that guy.” The color palette of the 2012 campaign is much brighter, adding more pop. It’s as approachable, fresh and optimistic as the first American presidential brand, and continues to own a more cyan hue of blue as its primary color. GQ typeface, Gotham, is also back for consistency but has slightly evolved into a custom slab serif, courtesy of the popular Hoefler & Frere-Jones Type Foundry. This typeface isn’t even available for licensing to the public as it appears to be a typeface commissioned by the campaign itself. The campaign creatives also ditched serif Palatino from 2008 and added slab serif Sentinel, another H&FJ typeface. It’s more versatile (with several weights) and definitely more contemporary.
In another expression of his visual brand, Obama’s store has hundreds of items for just about anyone on your holiday card list. There’s everything from a Joe Biden “Cheers Champ” beer koozie for your uncle, to high-end designer apparel by Marc Jacobs for your mom. There is literally something for everyone, which seems to be a reoccurring theme across the brand. The communal groups supporting the president by state, gender, religion, sexuality or ethnicity are all branded separately, but within an aesthetic consistent with the overarching Obama brand. They all have their own Twitter and Facebook platforms, interacting constantly with the President’s account. The campaign also marketed a chance to win dinner with Barack and Michelle, to reinforce the president’s approachability for those of us who aren’t George Clooney.
Overall, it’s clear that this campaign effort has remained relatively consistent in look and feel, with a progression in tone. It’s unmistakably brighter and more active than the 2008 version, setting a precedent in mobility.
In my previous blog post, I started diving into the Romney brandmark, but that was really just the tip of the iceberg. To give you a brief history, as a politician, Mitt Romney has had five different brandmarks for his identity in the last five years. It almost reminds me of recording artists like Madonna or Lady Gaga who are in a constant state of reinventing themselves.
Slogans and Social Media
Mitt’s messaging since the start of the Republican primaries has been consistently patriotic: “Believe In America” and “Stand With Mitt.” His campaign even showed their mobility by peppering in a little “We Built That” slogan, reacting to a sound bite gaffe from President Obama. All of these slogans have one thing in common—they’re all very stationary. Believing, standing and a past tense state of “built” don’t require any action. They’re all strong, but don’t necessarily speak to an agenda, plan or general method of operation. His social avatar is a calm, friendly face and his cover photo is a group of similar-looking people in gender, race and age at what appears to be a rally. There is little interaction and little diversity.
A noticeable difference in social media strategy is that Mitt only follows 272 people on Twitter (compared to over 672,000 by Obama). Just about everyone Mitt follows has the Twitter brand “verified” check next to their name, so they’re not exactly everyday people. He also has engaged 6% of the amount of people the President has, with only 1.3 million followers. This is somewhat expected since young Americans, who make up the majority of the social media population, skew more liberal.
After his five year state of constant political identity flux, Mitt Romney appears to have finally landed on his Trajan brandmark, with the Aquafresh-reminiscent “R.” He has a strong color palette with rich navy and off-white hues, reminiscent of corporate identities. This would all make sense since he has, at times, branded himself as a successful corporate businessman. He’s kept the Trajan around from the start of his campaign in 2011, but hardly seems to use it anymore besides in the brand mark itself. His creative team seems to have taken a cue from the typography of the 2008 Obama campaign and used three brand spankin’ new typefaces, including two publically licensable ones from H&FJ, Mercury and Whitney. Though there isn’t usually a need for two serif and two sans serif typefaces in the same design system, I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for why they need four fonts.
Inside the Romney campaign store, you won’t find a Paul Ryan beer koozie, but you will find your typical yard signs, bumper stickers, buttons in every color and a quarter-zip sweatshirt for dad. The community brands all look the same, just with different type alignment and layout. Long after the Obama campaign had almost ended their “Dinner with Barack” campaign, the Romney campaign took a page out of the Obama playbook and mirrored the effort nearly identically in strategy and design. One difference however is that you’re offered “a bite” with the vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, not Mitt, unlike the Obama promotion which offered dinner with the President himself.
At the end of the day, designs and messaging strategies can be imitated and dissected—but those with brand savvy know it can be nothing more than a parlor game. As a designer helping shape global brands like STX and national organizations like the National Runaway Safeline, I know that a brand is an identity and an experience, but more importantly—above all else—it has to be a working foundation. Your brand’s identity and experience must always resolve to be transparent and never hide who you truly are. If you are projecting a look and feel that you aren’t, no amount of super savvy branding strategy will fool the voting electorate.
I’ve enjoyed diving into the strategy as the 2012 campaign has continued to unfold. It’s fascinating to see how each candidate has shaped their personal brand identities. Now all there’s left to do is study up on what they stand for and get out and vote.
Know your polling place, check out Vote411.org to see where you can cast your ballot when the big day arrives.