The Evolution of Political Branding (and the Difference It Makes)

The term “branding” takes its name from the tradition of marking livestock with identifying symbols that signified ownership. Even before the advent of modern democracy, this concept was appropriated by trading companies and manufacturers, primarily used to show the genuine origin of trade goods. Branding concepts and techniques grew and evolved, and by the time senators and statesmen were running for elected offices in the brand new United States of America, sophisticated modes of recognition and message communication were being taken advantage of.

Old-school branding

In the late 18th to early 19th century, the use of logos and trademarks to represent political candidates had not fully caught on in politics. Perhaps because of the way information was disseminated at the time (prior to the invention of electronic mass communication devices like the telegraph and facsimile) the branding of political candidates was thought to be most effective with posters and political cartoons. The Join, or Die cartoon, published in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754, is a famous example of this technique, and served to establish Franklin’s own brand recognition to this day.

Join or Die cartoon

‘Old Hickory’ ushers in new methods of political branding

Andrew Jackson’s second bid for the presidency in 1828 saw branding evolve with a different campaign strategy. Jackson’s moniker “Old Hickory,” which he earned from his men during the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, became as much the rallying cry of a political movement as a nickname. Campaign workers diligently planted hickory trees and handed out hickory brooms and poles at marches and barbecues. Jackson’s aggressive branding worked to counter widely circulated negative press, such as the infamous “coffin handbills,” which capitalized on Jackson’s reputation as a duelist and killer.

Top section of a "coffin handbill" condemning Andrew Jackson, ca. 1828

Branding in the Jackson campaign also saw branding grow to encompass music. Jackson expanded his image by making wide use of The Hunters of Kentucky, which was written in part about Jackson’s exploits in the war.

‘I Like Ike’ builds on old ideas to great effect

Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaign in 1952 capitalized on many of the branding tactics pioneered by Jackson’s bid. The famous slogan, “I Like Ike,” recalls a similar focus on the candidate’s nickname. The phrase played a huge role in establishing Eisenhower’s wide recognition, and it was reinforced by buttons, posters, and a cartoon and accompanying musical score composed by Walt Disney. Long after Eisenhower served as president, the phrase “I Like Ike” remains ingrained in American pop culture.

Logos play a relatively new role in politics

The use of consistent logos to represent political candidates did not become widespread until the 1960s, where their prominence began to overshadow the use of slogans. Hubert Humphrey’s campaign branded itself with the HHH logo, gaining the advantage of a lightning-fast method of communicating a recognizable symbol and associated message faster than any previously known method. By the 1970s, the use of logos as a part of political campaigns became almost a prerequisite for election. Logos for candidates in the 1976 race were clearly inspired by mainstream popular culture, many of which made use of typographical styles popular in disco.

Campaign logos of Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter

Branding is even more important post-Obama

Many analysts credit Barack Obama’s savvy, consistent branding and campaign imagery with his successful campaign. John Quelch of the Harvard Business Review writes:

…his advertising messages and his tone and demeanor throughout the campaign consistently communicated his upbeat themes of hope and “change you can believe in.” The emotional appeal was buttressed with solid and specific policy details. The ability to combine emotional with functional benefits and the discipline to be consistent in positioning and message delivery are core to all successful branding campaigns. Ads that dealt with specific policy issues, even ads criticizing McCain, all continued to communicate the core themes.

Just as much as logos have been shown to act as a boon to a campaign, their significance — combined with intense scrutiny they receive, especially from the opposition — makes them particularly prone to gaffes. Jeb Bush’s campaign logo was harshly criticized for its poor use of typography; Hillary Clinton’s logo was widely panned for having the appearance of a symbol indicating the entrance to a hospital; the initial draft of the Trump / Pence campaign logo was said to evoke rather unfortunate symbolism.

Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Trump / Pence logos

More than ever, the impact of branding has an amplified impact, due to the effect pervasive social media use has on the way information is shared and absorbed. Ellen Tave Glassman lends insight into what political hopefuls should be most attentive to:

Success of presidential candidates rests squarely in grasping the idea of Social Physics, the statistical study of how and why peer groups and individuals influence us. By understanding the flow and spread of ideas, candidates can distribute their messages quickly for the benefit of public discourse. The key, then, for modern, intelligent campaigns is to produce meaningful, multi-sensory experiences and original content. To do that, candidates must recognize their logos are more than symbols of their personal brands.

Where should I put my political yard signs?

It doesn’t matter how cheap we sell you your political yard signs, what matters is how you get the most bang for you buck. Here’s our handy dandy guide on placing yard signs for maximum effectiveness.

Place signs in your district

This may sound stupid, but putting your signs outside of your district will say to some voters that you don’t know your own boundaries. Usually, the board of elections or secretary of state can provide you with maps of the district. Pay attention. It also helps to identify which are the highest turnout precincts- look at historical data to help plan.

Only place signs when it’s legal to place signs

Many jurisdictions have a window of time where posting political signs is ok. Usually, it’s 30 days before an election or a primary. Again, check with your local Board of Elections- or your local zoning administrator.

Place signs where it’s legal to post political signs

In most places, it’s not legal to place your signs on public property, like highway on ramps, or on the lawn at city hall. Yes, lots of candidates do it, but, if your signs are going to be removed, why spend the time and money. Our philosophy is only place them on private property owned by supporters, with their permission. Always have a check box on your donation page if they want a sign- and, have a place online where supporters can request a sign.

When canvassing on main roads with high traffic, ask to place signs

One sign on a major street with thousands of cars traveling by is worth 10 signs on a side street with low traffic. Always be thinking how many people will see my sign, and walk those areas yourself.

Ask your party

Usually, the local political party will have a list of people who are willing to place signs for candidates of their own party. Make sure you get to those places first. The party faithful are also often well connected. You can also ask politicians who aren’t running in the same cycle as you for their friends and spots.

Don’t get lost in the ocean

There are always spots where everyone plants their flag. Often, by not putting a sign in the sea you make a bigger statement.

How to best use your big signs

When it comes to political signs, one size doesn’t fit all. That’s why we sell polybags and coroplast board signs. Use the bigger signs on roads with higher speedlimits- so they can be seen and read. And don’t forget interstate highways- often times, there are yards that back up to highways- with a fence- get permission, and put your sign or banner, on the fence facing the highway.

Don’t waste exterior signs inside

Your polybag signs and coroplast signs are for outdoor use. You pay extra for that. For store windows, or interior signs, look to post posters which can be bought for considerably less (especially if you buy it from us at PC Signs).

Think different

Challenger Gary Leitzell was going to be outspent and out signed, so he staged a guerrilla campaign against his opponent with these signs

Sometimes it’s what you don’t put on your sign that gets you noticed

While most candidates put their name on signs, sometimes it pays to put an issue, or even spoof your opposition. One well funded incumbent in Dayton was flummoxed when her no-name opponent posted a sign that mirrored hers in color and design- and asked a question. Her followers went crazy trying to move her signs away- only to find that the opposition signs caught back up.

Another candidate bought large trash cans and wrapped them with stickers suggesting that he was all about cleaning things up- and you could start with putting the campaign signs in his cans after the election. Note- these cans cost the same as at least 20 signs, so you have to be strategic.

We can also help you with large banners to hang on fences, at campaign rallies, or on the side of supporters buildings. We’ve also seen candidates take these and mount them on the back of a pickup truck- and drive them all over town.

Street corner politics is alive and well- one candidate we know sets up his smoker on the corner at 6am and starts slow cooking BBQ Port (he did beef brisket in an area where Muslim refugees had moved) and stood the corner all day- until around 5 when it was ready to give away his sandwiches. All day- he met people, handed out signs and literature- while his wife (a clown by profession) painted kids faces. He got a few large flags to fly from PC Signs to stake his corner.

After the election

There may be rules about how long after an election a campaign sign can stay up, so check. But, if you collect all your signs the day after, many voters will notice- and you’ll have signs and stakes for your next campaign. That’s one reason putting a date on your sign isn’t always a great idea.