Why the 2016 Election is a Battle of the Brands
Political branding is nothing new. As far back as 1828, long before commercial organizations truly embraced branding and slogans, Andrew Jackson’s campaign branded him “Old Hickory” and reaped the reward of overwhelming populist support.
The success of most political campaigns in the modern era has been, in large part, due to smart and disciplined branding. 20th century technological innovations established the airwaves as the new battleground where escalating attack ads came to define the alarmist tone of political rhetoric. This trend has only been amplified the 21st century, in which the 24-hour news cycle and “always-on” social media have placed unprecedented pressure on candidates. Technological changes have prompted ever more sophisticated campaigns to take an increasingly holistic and modern approach to building their brands.
The Campaign of “Change”
The most visible indicator of political branding is a candidate’s logo. Up until quite recently, nearly all political logos looked fairly similar. Red, white, and blue all over, Stars and Stripes, and other predictable elements dominated. Barack Obama’s landmark 2008 campaign bucked this conformist trend; leveraging a memorable logo, crisp typeface, and striking visual language to drum up a groundswell of support. Obama’s deliberate use of iconography and expression was encapsulated by the now historic “Hope” poster designed by counterculture street artist Shepard Fairey. Powerful visuals were reinforced by forward-thinking phrasing such as “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes We Can.” The use of the inclusive pronoun “we” also showed a unique understanding of the subtle power language can lend to a brand.
Branding Trumps All
The 2016 election cycle has offered nothing less than a master class in the power of branding. Underscoring the importance of branding in this race is the fact that the two primary front-runners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, achieved their lead positions by leveraging powerful, pre-existing brands. It is rare for a non-incumbent candidate to enter the race as a nationally known commodity—indeed, clearing that all-important threshold is generally what campaign branding is all about. Yet, in 2016, from the moment the two presumptive candidates declared their intention to run, they were already fixtures in the popular imagination with personal brands that had been long-ago cemented.
Take Donald Trump’s bold, all-caps “TRUMP” logo, meant to evoke the existing air of maximalism he built atop his gaudy real estate empire. Accompanying the logo is Trump’s now inescapable mantra “Make America Great Again!” (which he went so far as to trademark). While simplistic, this slogan is syntaxically interesting. Four memorable, punchy words manage to effectively frame the country’s prestige in the context of past, present, and future. Further harnessing the power of branding is the way in which Trump “counter-brands” his opponents. Using indelible, barbed epithets, he effectively flips his opponent’s brands. “Jeb!” became “Low-energy Jeb”; rising new hope Marco Rubio was whittled down to “Little Marco”; “TrustTED” has been mercilessly transformed into “Lying Ted Cruz”; and political scandal survivor Hillary Clinton has been immortalized as “Crooked Hillary.” Say what you will of Trump’s policy positions (or lack thereof), he has proven himself an intuitive branding savant.
Branding All That’s Left
On the other side of the aisle is Hillary Clinton’s hyper-polished logo from premium design firm Pentagram. Meant to modernize and energize her somewhat stodgy and staid image, the bold arrow of the “H” crossbar was intended to evoke dynamism and progress. A few unimpressed critics snidely noted the arrow was red and pointed right. The pared down symbol is echoed by Clinton’s very trim tag “Hillary for America.” The overall effect is one of safe, sterile, and slightly corporate patriotism, one that reinforces this candidate’s depth of experience and expertise. As Trump now tries to shed the domineering, alpha-instinct that helped differentiate him in the race’s early stages; Clinton is attempting to sharpen her spontaneous edge and move past the circumspect, attentive politicking that helped diffuse the rhetoric of her fiery socialist rival.
Speaking of Bernie Sanders, his campaign took a markedly different approach from the two projected favorites. Although a longtime fixture on the Hill, Sanders came into the race a relative unknown. He managed his remarkable brand-building sprint by channeling his tech savvy neo-populism into a truly crowd-sourced movement. Sanders’s official brand creatives and tagline appear hardly anywhere on his campaign. Instead, the Sanders camp opted for the homespun digital art and catchy, irreverent tag “Feel The Bern” championed by his supporters. These fan contributions have stuck in large part because they were incorporated into the campaign once they achieved popularity; a shrewd move that actively reinforced Sanders’s rejection of top-down, traditional authority.
As the race winds down, voters will reveal which strategies ultimately resonate the most with them. Regardless of how the contest ends, each of these unique branding approaches contains actionable insight that any organization can apply to its own branding efforts. Deliberate and definitive language choice, forceful visual cohesion, and curated tailoring of language for specific audiences has arguably proven vastly more important than the candidates stand on particular issues. No matter who you end up voting for in the 2016 election, the culture has already cast its ballot on the importance of branding.