Branding in politics: How visuals and media influence elections
Branding and marketing are central to American presidential elections. A strong logo, slogan, and imagery—and more recently use of social media—helps candidates visually represent their politics and build a consistent message. The best campaign brands even convey a sense of their ideology with nothing more than a glance. It’s the same rules of branding that drive business success, but with the future of our democracy at stake.
Campaign materials are so embedded in American politics that they can be found as early as Andrew Jackson’s 1828 campaign. Political branding continued to evolve for decades until the 1980s, when design innovation ground to halt. For nearly 30 years, American political campaigns had a defined look: red, white, blue, and big.
Since 2008, politicians have branched out and created more interesting brands that express their values. They’re also using social media more intentionally, connecting their visuals and messaging with a digital strategy to mobilize voters. Here’s a look at three campaigns from recent years that made history in how they redefined the role of branding in politics.
Obama 2008: Taking grassroots organizing online
Obama’s 2008 campaign marked a turning point in American political branding. After decades of design gridlock, he broke the mold with innovative campaign materials. His marketing appealed to young, diverse voters ready for progressive change. In fact, his campaign materials revolutionized political branding to such a high degree that he was awarded the 2008 Advertising Age’s marketer of the year prize.
Obama’s logo and key marketing phrases consolidated his brand as a progressive, innovative politician. With warmer shades of red and blue than the traditional palette and a circular ‘O’ shape, his logo created a new standard for branding. Rather than just blast his name in ribbon red, he used nuanced symbolism to highlight his differentiators. Red stripes pave their way into the future, and the ‘O’ brings the promise of a new day over the horizon. His messaging furthered notions of optimism and progress, with cries of “Yes we can,” “Change we can believe in,” and “Hope.” And of course, the famous poster by muralist Shepherd Fairey became the icon of a new generation of young voters.
Since the dawn of American politics, our institutions had been built by and for wealthy white men. With Obama, politics became, for the first time, truly by and for all people. Everything Obama did reflected his background as a community organizer, and nothing showed his expertise in grassroots activism like his social media strategy. He leveraged the nascent power of social media to create a political movement across Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and more, meeting young, tech-savvy voters on their terrain. While his competitors bought TV and radio airtime and spoke to middle-ground politics, Obama prioritized less traditional platforms and spoke directly to a voter base who had long been ignored by mainstream politicians. The results of this strategy: mobilizing thousands of voters who usually don’t show up to the polls.
Ultimately, Obama’s efforts to stand out paid off. 2008 saw the most diverse voter turnout in U.S. history, as record numbers of Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters cast their ballots for him. Obama also drew two-thirds of the under-30 vote, reaping the success of his innovative social media strategy.
Trump 2016: Projecting strength and simplicity
As the pendulum swings, Trump’s 2016 run for president harkened back to traditional designs and values of the 80s, reflecting the more conservative, strongman politics of that era. However, unlike his predecessors, Trump took his branding to the internet.
Trump’s logo and messaging appeal to conservative values. Big, bold letters in red, white, and blue project American strength, and simple messaging is easy to understand at a glance. A politician known for bucking diplomacy, the lack of nuance in his materials is the design, and it’s completely on-brand.
The real masterpieces of his marketing, though, are his slogan and hat. “Make America great again” drips of patriotism, and is genius in its ability to imply white nationalism without saying the words. It echos and validates the beliefs of his voter base so much that it has become its own acronym, and is the centerpiece of each of his rallies and marketing materials. Though not the first politician to use the phrase, he is the first to create such an indelible association between the words and his brand, going so far as to trademark it in 2015. By emblazing the slogan on a hat—completely undesigned—his supporters can own a piece of his campaign and feel a bit of the power and strength for themselves that fuel Trump’s politics.
Trump’s brand is the antagonist, and his home base is Twitter. Throughout 2016, he crafted increasingly shocking tweets that resonated and built rapport with his voter base. Meanwhile, his team turned to Facebook to generate millions in campaign revenue. They reinvested it all in a robust digital advertising campaign, mobilizing older, rural voters to turn out in high numbers. True to his brand, his ads were blatantly antagonistic toward other candidates, particularly Hilary Clinton. For example, he ridiculed her physical strength by composing an ad with clips from when she had pneumonia, and showed her “insulting” his voter base, playing perfectly to insecurities as people with lower educational attainment.
Trump found a niche of voters whose voices were underrepresented in American politics, and he built a brand that spoke directly to their frustrations. More than 60% of his 2016 turnout was composed of white Americans without a college education, mostly from rural areas, whose perspectives hadn’t been at the forefront of policy in the Obama years. He carefully honed his image of the “American strongman” to appeal to his voter base, and succeeded just enough to hold office.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 2018: Branding a political movement
Outside of presidential elections, the same rules of branding in politics still apply. Take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who took a novel approach to branding in her 2018 run for the House of Representatives. For AOC, her poster is her brand. Rather than spread her branding (and budget) across multiple materials, she focused on a single image that clearly represents her politics and speaks to progressive voters in her district.
There’s a lot to dissect: the bold colors that mirror her politics, the sheared text angled as though toward the future, the speech bubble that represents her conversational approach. She is the face of her own campaign; her gaze follows the text with the same progressive path forward. By putting her face front and center, she visually represents her district’s changing demographics. And as an inexperienced politician, visibility was key to her success.
Every design detail serves to create a cohesive message that amplifies her bare-bones slogan, “Vote for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!” Like her politics, her slogan is direct and action-oriented. The bi-liingual text pays homage to her Puerto Rican heritage and connects with the many Spanish-speakers in her district, and exclamation points accentuated with stars make multiculturalism patriotic. The look has been copied around the world now by at least 20 different campaigns, to the point where it is a stand-in for progressive politics.
Social media is a huge part of AOC’s brand. Her platforms highlight authentic and relatable parts of her campaign (famously, her journey from bartender to politician), which appeals to her base of young voters. She is savvy about her use of Instagram stories, posts, and IGTV to get out information and has gone viral multiple times for her charismatic speeches and Twitter clap backs. Basically, she uses social media like every other influencer under 35, prioritizing transparency and clickable content.
AOC was the first candidate to so openly include the Latinx community in her campaign materials, even in a district where 40% of the population speaks Spanish. Like Obama and Trump, she found a niche of voters who had been excluded by previous politicians, and found a way to speak directly to their experience—in this case, quite literally. Also like Trump, she didn’t win a popular landslide; only 13.9 percent of registered Democrats in her district turned up to vote, but she knew the right messaging would compel enough people to cast a ballot.
Taking a critical eye to 2020
From each of these examples, it’s apparent that branding in politics is imperative to swaying public opinion. It’s more than just about self-promotion; it’s a way of visually expressing politics and targeting fresh demographics ready for their voices to be heard. Every detail from text size to color choice to key words and phrases purposefully contributes to an image that connects politicians with their intended base. Marketing efforts that effectively target a niche audience are necessary to get the word out.
Though millions have already cast their ballots for the 2020 election, campaign media will continue to flood our feeds until Election Day. We urge you to pay attention to the hidden messaging in each candidate’s branding: look critically at the images, videos, slogans, and logos to figure out how they want to be seen and who they want to reach. Whether or not you’ve made up your mind about your vote, take time to educate yourself on the issues candidates are leveraging to appeal to their bases. No politician has made it to the presidential race by accident; their secrets to success are often right in your face. We just have to pay attention to what they’re saying.