Primary Colours – American Election Branding
Today, America goes to the polls to vote for their President for the next 4 years.
Americans know a thing or two about staging an election. Whilst our more reserved British values might cause us to scoff at the spectacle of it all – the emphasis on personality over policy, the attack ads – American political gurus understand the importance of a co-ordinated and branded campaign.
Here’s a selection of Presidential Election Campaign posters from the 19th Century:
Erm… not exactly great, are they? I mean, if you were to just have a cursory glance over them you’d be hard-pushed to tell that they were from different elections spanning over 40 years. Progression it ain’t.
Hmm, this article’s going to be a tough one to sell if it stays like this. Maybe I could talk about how the number of leaves used in the wreath frames expanded over time, and that this was a metaphor for America’s new found confidence both on the world stage and…
…Nah, I’ll just skip ahead 100 years for the sake of everyone’s sanity and valuable lunchtime.
OK, so things were pretty much like that until around the First World War, which was the exact same time that Advertising and Marketing was just starting to become an understandable science! What a coincidence!
You can call politicians many things, not all of them favourable. But for all of the easy name-calling and derisive terms you can give them, they are often shrewd, calculating, and opportunistic, and nowhere are they more shrewd, calculating, and opportunistic than America.
American politicians in the early 1900s were quick to see the benefits of speaking to professional marketers. The 20 years either side of the turn of the century is when we see the first true Brands start to appear around the globe, and just like it is today, it’s not necessarily the quality of the product that has got them to that point; it’s the public perception of those products, and that’s where advertising had come to play with its big shiny new ball labelled ‘market research.’
Under the influence of marketers, campaigns slowly start to introduce elements that we’re all used to today – easily-remembered slogans, dominant focal points, fewer colours, and a more immediate impact on the viewer.
You can see in this poster for Warren Harding’s successful run for the White house in 1920 that things are starting to look a bit more how you’d expect them – the candidate’s image as a focal point, a short(ish) slogan to rally the troops, and a familiar colour scheme. There is still quite a bit of decoration to it, but it’s far more simplistic than its predecessors’ advertising, and actually takes a few queues from the Art Noveau movement that was popular at the time.
Flash forward 30 years and things are becoming even more simplistic in both the message and presentation. Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower’s campaign posters were amongst the first to be considered truly ‘iconic’ (although maybe the use of black, white and red was a little unfortunate considering the country had only stopped killing Nazis 7 years prior). The ‘We Like Ike’ slogan had a tremendous effect on how candidates were branded and marketed. Policy was not necessarily the front-running message anymore; now it was relatability, it was personality. It was using a more immediate and memorable message to draw people into the campaign, before then giving the details of the candidate’s proposals. It serves as both an introduction and a simple way for supporters to show their loyalty in a non-preachy way.
Looking back, it’s strange how ‘quaint’ the later posters of Reagan and Bush look compared to their 60s posters. But the 80s were heavily influenced in terms of style by the 50s, so in a way it makes a little sense.
But you can see a (very) slow progression from the 20s onwards towards a more marketable, bite size type of branding. It makes the campaigns more of a commodity, but it makes them more memorable, which in turn motivates people to find out more of the campaign, in much the same way a teaser trailer might make someone seek out more information on a film before the proper trailer is released. It’s giving you a candidate to identify with, almost like a lifestyle brand like Nike or Coke. And hey, at least it’s not returning to the dour days of candidate team headshots in oval frames with etched images of bald eagles, ornate bunting & ribbons and…
If you were writing an article on Presidential campaign branding (which, if you’ve decided to just skim read so far, this is), part of it can seem like shooting fish in a barrel, because probably the most iconic, well known, and most praised branding execution was at the last election in 2008, and it’s still fresh in the memory.
A solid, political Brand is counting for even more in the 21st Century, and both sides of the aisle are waking up to this in the wake of Obama’s campaign.
Barack Obama’s team just ‘got’ how to market their man. Obviously that’s a bit misleading – they focus-tested the hell out of their campaign, they employed seasoned brand consultants and creative marketers, and they identified incredibly early on the growing power of social media as a means to spread a message.
The canny choice of using social media as an integral part of the campaign was brilliant. It’s easy to look back and say ‘Well obvs, blud. You is cray-cray ta diss dat’, but that’s because the effectiveness of social media usage, both in our everyday lives and as part of standard advertising campaigns, and the momentum that pro-active users of a product/service/campaign can give that product has been proven time and time again.
But even in the dark, hazy past of 4 years ago, things weren’t so clear cut. Twitter had only around 200,000 active users in 2008, compared to over 140 million now. The behemoth of social, Facebook, had just (yes, I know, just) 100 million users as near as August 2008 whereas now over a billion people have accounts, and when you talk to someone who doesn’t have an account, you end up looking at them a bit funny.
Putting so much emphasis and time into the social campaigns that they ran was a huge risk. The returns on it were relatively unknown, and with American voters (especially in the mid-West) known for being more tuned into the more traditional, conservative forms of advertising, it could’ve come over as following a ‘fad’, or even alienating older voters who still considered the internet to be a scary haven for ‘undesirables’.
But it actually worked in the exact opposite way. By embracing social media, the campaign positioned itself as progressive, forward-thinking and not ‘behind the times’. It spoke directly to younger voters, it created a dialogue with them, it gave them the feeling that this was their guy, he understood them, he wasn’t just the usual out-of-touch grey man in a grey suit.
It gave grass-roots supporters a very vocal and easy-to-organise way of getting rallies promoted, and not only getting policy statements out within minutes of them being made public, but giving those statements in a more ‘everyman’ voice, rather than the usual, carefully-worded official adverts. It made people feel a part of the campaign, which in turn spurred them on to work harder for their guy. The Hope rubbed off on people.
The Obama logo was created by Chicago-based designer Sol Sender, formerly of Sender LLC, now a partner at VSA Partners.
Right from the start, Sender’s team knew that there was potential do something a little different (http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/20/the-o-in-obama/), something that really made previous attempts to brand a candidate look like cheap hand-out flyers for a kebab shop. But all the time was the worry that applying a radically different identity to a client that was already radically different himself in terms of his race, his background, and his lack of experience, might alienate those it was attempting to reach out to. It needed to symbolise fresh thinking, optimism, and change, whilst still having a strong, recognisable base in traditional American political visuals.
One thing Sender was never going to get rid of was the primary colour palette. Draping your guy in the ol’ Red, White n’ Blue is an absolute no-brainer for American candidates as it appeals to both sides of the spectrum and instantly gets over the message of patriotism.
One thing that Sender noticed is how previous candidate’s logos tended to be heavily typographical; there was never really a trace of a proper logomark involved – usually just a serif font with banner lines and stars. This played into the team’s hands, as it allowed them to push on the idea of a proper logomark to make their guy stand out, whilst also tying into the average consumer’s expectations on how they are sold to. They’re used to marks being used on everything they buy, from small supermarket products and the cars they drive, through to their entertainment choices like music, bands and films. Although the idea for a political candidate to have an honest-to-God brand identity was a new one, it wasn’t seen as alien by consumers because of the world that we are now used to living in. It broke with tradition whilst still keeping it within arm’s reach.
“No matter how well executed a logo is, if it doesn’t stand for something that means something to people then it’s not going to work.” – Sol Sender
The logo went through several iterations, predominantly playing with circles to make up the O for Obama and the election year ’08. But for both the team and the client, there was always one stand-out concept.
The Sun rising over red & white-striped fields forming an ‘O’ was instantly liked by voters, critics and designers. In one simple mark they summed up hope (the Sun), traditional American values (hard work in the fields of the mid-West), and patriotism (the primary colour scheme). The logo could stand on its own without the necessary need for typography, which made its application across different media a very easy one.
The logo very quickly took on a life of its own. It was adopted by grass-roots campaigners very quickly and began showing predominantly at rallies and in home-produced material. The logo was handed off to the campaign’s design team, who then began adapting it to be used to attract different types of voters and demographics. Yet all of the adaptations were subtle ones that tied into the core identity and didn’t dilute the brand.
“The strongest logos tell a simple story” –Sol Sender
I think it stands as a testament to how well the Obama branding was handled at the last election that mainstream media outlets like MSNBC and CNN discussed on air the choice of typeface that Obama made.
As anyone who works in design will tell you, good typeface selection goes a long way to selling your product. Whilst it’s something that the majority of people don’t pay conscious attention to, the right font can evoke the right feelings in the viewer to make them desire a product and correctly give over the impression you are trying to make.
Hoefler & Frere-Jones’ Gotham is a legendary font. Originally designed 10 years ago for GQ magazine, it has become what many have dubbed the ‘American Helvetica’. After its exclusivity with GQ ran out and it was made available to the public, Gotham has been used ubiquitously by the design community ever since, finding its way onto Coca Cola’s branding, USA Today’s recent rebrand, Nike advertising, TV shows and Movie advertising (I could do a whole article on movies that have used Gotham, Inception especially).
Using a bold Sans like Gotham was a real step away from traditional campaign branding. Candidates have conventionally gone for serifs to appeal to the more conservative sensibilities of the American people. But not only did they go in the opposite direction, they picked up on a modern classic that really fitted into the message of the campaign.
Gotham’s style lends itself to strong simple words like OBAMA and HOPE; it gives them a strength without being overtly brash. It’s a softly-spoken strength which ties into Obama’s image of an introvert President who is willing to try to get the job done.
Gotham stood in stark contrast to the Republican candidate John McCain’s choice of Optima. Optima has been described as an ‘all things to all people’ font – it’s not quite a fully-fledged serif, it’s not quite a modern font (though it is only around 50 years old, a comparative baby in font terms), it has a little of all things thrown into it. Though it’s easy to see it was chosen because it has a traditional feel to it to appeal to McCain’s older support base, it also has another, sometimes overlooked, reason for being used.
McCain’s campaign was built around his image as a war veteran; a man who had been held as a Prisoner of War by the Viet Cong, a man who had earned his reputation in adversity and who put the men under his command in front of his own needs. I mention this because Optima is the typeface used on the Vietnam War memorial in Washington (amongst other military uses of it).
Now most (if not all) people wouldn’t consciously get that, but visual design generally does most of its work on a subconscious level. You don’t look at a red advert and think “I like this product because it uses red in the background”, you look at the advert and your subconscious picks up on the colour and associates it with memories, feelings and preconceptions you have which happen to produce the desired feeling in your head to make you like the advert.
So although 99.9% of people who look at it wouldn’t immediately think about the connection, the subconscious connection would be made to many people who have had family members serving in the armed forces and who have seen Optima or similar typefaces used in the world around them, and then associate McCain with the pride and shared memories they have associated with the military.
Obama’s Election campaign can almost be completely summed up in one piece of design: Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster.
It wasn’t something conceived in a marketing department, it wasn’t even part of the official campaign, it was something that was done at a grassroots level, made on the back of the campaign’s message, and it really grabbed the attention of the media and the average voter.
It helped that Fairey wasn’t an unknown artist of course; in fact his personal Brand associated a certain level of ‘cool’ with Obama’s own Brand. He’d been well known in America since the early 90s thanks to his ‘Andre The Giant Has A Posse’ flyposters, and by the turn of the century his work was all over the world, with a distinct style that made him stand out against his street-art contemporaries.
Initially only 350 posters were made and sold, but after those first posters created a massive buzz, another 4,000 were distributed at rallies, before Fairey made the poster free to download on his website.
The poster became the iconic shot of the Obama campaign, embodying the core message of hope, the fresh thinking that was at the heart of the campaign, and the emphasis on grassroots support going viral.
Showing the impact that the poster had, it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institute for the National Portrait Gallery soon after the election.
This Year’s Campaign
The impact of the Obama campaign on the thoughts and preparations of this year’s campaign are inescapable. Nearly all of the Republican nominees presented themselves through a cohesive brand identity with some semblance of a logo at the forefront; none more so than Mitt Romney, the successful candidate. And to be fair to Mr Romney, he’s got a pretty decent identity going on.
Although it’s been pointed out many times during the campaign that it looks like some toothpaste squeezed out, Romney’s ‘sideways flag forming an R’ motif actually works pretty well. It follows the idea of the Obama logo making the surname initial the focus and keeping to the same patriotic colour scheme. It’s solid, and although it takes cues from Obama’s 2008 campaign, it has enough of its own style to avoid serious accusations of plagiarism, using a combination of Mercury and Whitney (also a Hoefler & Frere-Jones font) for its typography.
The Republicans have also made far more headway into a social media campaign than they did before, even launching a Mitt Romney VP App to stir up interest in Romney’s Vice President campaign. They still have nowhere near the online presence of the Obama brand, but their embracing of the platform has given them a presence to at least compete, as well as leaving them in a strong position to build on in 2016 (if the Mayans haven’t destroyed us all by then).
Obama’s campaign has kept with a strong level of continuity. Although there must have been temptation to completely revise the brand in the light of public perception of a tenure that failed to live up to the hype, the campaign has opted for updating rather than reinventing.
They’ve kept with the same strong elements that made the brand shine before, primary colours and bold typography utilising the logo within the zero of 2012.
Interestingly enough, Obama’s campaign this time around is the first ever to utilise a custom bespoke font. After the widespread praise for using Gotham on the last campaign, the Obama team approached Hoefler & Frere-Jones to make a custom version of Gotham but incorporating serifs. The result unsurprisingly is called Gotham Serif and is currently exclusive to Obama (although it is a certainty to be made available to the public at some point, regardless of the success of Obama’s campaign).
The website www.barackobama.com has naturally had a revamp. The team has gone for a modern, clean layout that is being favoured more and more by large businesses on the web now, with large scale photography, data capture areas and direct-message bucket links dominating the top. The rest of the content is evenly distributed further down the page, giving the user a reason to continue to read and to become more attached to the message they’re putting out.
But it’s interesting to see how closely Romney’s site www.mittromney.com echoes the Obama site. Both sites carry similar photography, both use a blue bar at the top of the page to separate navigation from content, both push their data capture elements, both mix and match lines of serif type with sans serif type. It’s interesting that both sites, worked on individually, have come to the same conclusions on the application of their branding for their guy’s home page.
The brand has continued to put its stock into online advertising, and it’s estimated that the campaign will have spent $35m on online advertising alone when all is said and done.
It’s also tried its hand at an ‘attack site’, mocking Romney’s reluctance to actually explain how he’s going to raise money to address the national deficit and stimulate the economy whilst implementing widespread tax cuts. The site, romneytaxplan.com has spread rapidly round blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, and it has been praised in many quarters.
The online Obama brand has also put a lot of its hopes in the use of Dashboard, an online data analysis tool being used by a team of more than 100 statisticians, predictive modellers, data mining experts, mathematicians, software engineers, bloggers, internet advertising experts and online organisers to both organise campaigners in swing states and to decide with greater accuracy where the campaign needs to be seen and who needs to see it. Currently they’re running 865m online display ads a month in the run-up to the election.
The interesting thing about this particular election is that it’s not really going to matter too much who wins in terms of how future candidates are going to brand themselves. Both have really harnessed social media as part of their brand this time round; if Obama loses after vastly outspending his opponent online then maybe future campaigns will hold back a little from their internet expenditure and put it into more traditional means of advertising like print and television, but both campaigns have proved the importance of expanding the brand online, and that’s here to stay.
Both campaigns have been slick, polished, and have embraced branding as a way of packaging their man in a sellable way to the American public. It’s reinforced the importance of branding in the modern age.
I said at the beginning of the article that it’s easy for us Brits to scoff at the whole spectacle, and it is. But don’t you think that the likes of Cameron, Miliband and Boris would benefit from investing in a more modern, professional and exciting look? The closest we got to what has been achieved in America was Blair’s campaign in 1997, and whilst slick, it wasn’t exactly all that amazing. At the time it was derided as being ‘too American’ and probably it was. You do want to deal in substance, or at least give the impression that you do when you’re a politician, but couldn’t they do it with a bit better presentation?
God bless America.