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.

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