The Presidential Brand

During President Obama’s first campaign for president, I noted the importance his brand played in wooing voters. From catchphrases (“Yes We Can!”) to the consistent, pleasing visual design (Gotham font throughout with the rising sun in variation according to audience), his campaign excelled in branding itself. No other campaign could compete on the branding level — design, marketing, big data use, etc. Most politicians and consultants have realized this now.

Political campaigns have learned that using big data, nudges and other predictive and behavior-changing technologies and insights, but they’ve forgotten the front-end: their design and brand. Candidates and electeds must sell themselves as more than just people and policy positions. (Not that this is good for the republic.)

They must cultivate a brand with substance. It must be, to some degree, self-sustaining in that it survives and bolsters its spokesperson when he or she falters. Obama’s campaign did this. And we can see it in the continued use of Gotham and similar fonts by organizations and candidates — generally, Democrats — even today.

Unfortunately, while the politicians have adopted most of the proven strategies of Obama’s 2000 run, they haven’t innovated or kept abreast of the game for 2016. And certainly not the growing importance of design and personal branding in electoral campaigning. Your ugly sign may sink — and definitely doesn’t help — your campaign.

In this morning’s Washington Post, we’re told Hillary Clinton may have learned the importance of branding and design. She’s hired two marketing execs for her campaign — folks who have experience rebranding old companies to attract modern-day audiences. One of the two is Roy Spence, the well-known head of the Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M. I’ve never understood why Dems are so in love with him considering, as a businessman, he makes ads for both sides and isn’t unwilling to stoop fairly low in service to them. And if his company makes campaign contributions, I’m sure they play both sides as well — I don’t feel like looking up Texas Ethics Commission reports right now.  Further, he’s an old Clinton friend. So I don’t really see him as being a new addition to the campaign given he made the 3 AM ad for Clinton 2000.

She’s also hired Wendy Clark of Coca-Cola, who, as far as I know, is actually a new hire. I could be wrong. She did previously work at GSD&M.

Other Democrats still don’t seem to get the branding and design part, though. They miss the importance. They claim she can’t rebrand and must stick to being “Hillary” and only stating policy positions (which we all know is impossible for candidates and politicians) and “being herself.” The problem with this view is that she’s rebranded several times before:

After a complicated tenure as first lady, Clinton reinvented herself as a potholes-and-pork senator from her adopted state of New York. Then she ran for president as a tough woman in the mold of Margaret Thatcher. Failing that, she had a careful run as the country’s top diplomat under Obama that allies believe raised her stature.

 

Perhaps her most significant rebranding came in 2000, when she became a popular elected official in her own right after her husband’s Monica Lewinsky scandal and after a controversial tenure as first lady. Clinton was ridiculed as a dilettante and a carpetbagger, but she won over critics, even some Republicans, with a dogged commitment to local issues.

 

In 2008, however, Clinton’s rebranding went badly, starting with a misreading of the zeitgeist that had her stressing her commander-in-chief qualifications when the public preferred Obama’s promise of hope and change.

If she can do that, I think she can handle the other facets of rebranding. But I think Democrats, in general, need to learn that branding is more important than they think. Policies rarely win elections. They do lose them, though. Branding helps.

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