Branding the Candidates
With all the chatter about personal branding and celebrity branding and managing your brand, I got to thinking about the branding frenzy in this relentless presidential campaign. Brand messaging is all about evoking and owning a valued and distinctive brand meaning. The words are the literal piece. They name the brand and maybe offer a snappy slogan. The design is the evocative piece. It draws from the visual culture to evoke desirable meanings that are out there. Digging around in the campaign archives, it surprised me to see that branding the candidates using the tactics of current brand meaning-making is a very recent expedient.
Through the history of U.S. presidential campaigns, the branding orthodoxy has been to get the name big in a visual field of red white and blue. The look itself delivered the required context of American political candidate. Plug in the candidate’s name and it was done.
When simple word play was an option, as in the Eisenhower campaign or in the Goldwater opposition, the resulting brand message was focused and memorable.
Political brand design and messaging became more nuanced and contemporary with the Shepard Fairey poster for the 2008 Obama campaign. The design built on a classic poster art style, used a distinctive, derivative red, white and blue palette, a one-word brand promise and no name. The graphic alone identified the candidate brand just as brands like Starbucks, Shell and Apple do. The visual style of this message, it’s look, became such a strong personal branding meme that is has often been lifted for other personal brand graphics, notably for Edward Snowden and Mitch McConnell.
In the current primary campaign, the candidates’ brand designs share a simple, clean format, a typographic versus graphic strategy, a red, white and blue palette, except for Mr. Trump who differentiates with color, and an absence of symbolic graphics, except for Secretary Clinton whose arrow is open to interpretation. These brand visuals reflect a widely used contemporary graphic idiom that is simple and uncluttered, utilitarian if not distinctive and, in its application, unmistakably political.
Like so much in politics, the record of candidates’ visual branding seems historically centrist, i.e. average and common and safe, in its look and style and messaging. This cluster creates an opportunity for an original visual breakthrough, which, if and when it happens, raises the visual standard to a better but quickly standardized look and becomes the new cluster. Campaign teams should think about an outreach to visual design communicators who are as fresh, original and unconventional as their strategists, wordsmiths and speechwriters try to be. I wonder if anyone reached out to Banksy.