The Wilderness | Issue 48 | 4 . 23 . 15 | Tweet
The need to present Hillary Clinton as the candidate best suited for the country going forward, and not the one that reminds us of our past, is one that her campaign clearly believes is their top priority right now. This was evidenced by her lifting lines directly from Marco Rubio’s announcement speech a day after hers about a “21st century America” and building “An economy for tomorrow” at a roundtable in Iowa. Clinton opted for a mostly-digital roll out that she barely made an appearance in. A much younger, much more affable Rubio took to a stage to remind an audience that yesterday is over.
The line stung.
Being the aged candidate of yesterday is a label Hillary Clinton cannot shake on her own. She’s been part of the national and international political scene since long before a youthful generation of millennials have even been able to cast a vote in a national election. On top of that she’s facing a new crop of GOP candidates that have an entire blank slate to work from. For the first time in generations the political board has been completely flipped upside down. The Democrats find themselves saddled with geriatric establishment candidates who will be forced to overcome their messaging of the past. In order to accomplish this, they will turn to the symbolic visual identity that made Barack Obama an iconic force in American Culture. Clinton opted for a roll out that resembled a product launch, not a political campaign. There was a very specific reason for this and it has everything to do with how Obama changed the political landscape forever.
The gamble they are taking is that young voters on college campuses and pop stars will rally around a corporate brand once again, not the flawed message of the candidate themselves. It’s a game they have won overwhelmingly twice already. But the important thing to remember is single letter qualifiers didn’t start with Barack Obama’s iconic O logo. It started in 2004, with a W.
Early on, Obama’s team still didn’t have the game completely figured out. It took David Axelrod contacting partners at a high design firm in Chicago to come in and clean up Obama’s identity. At the time, Facebook was still relatively young, Twitter was a celebrity promotional tool no different than MySpace, and the idea of political branding was almost completely nonexistent. The need for an all-encapsulating logo was restricted to stars and stripes on bumper stickers and buttons. Obama’s young team of forward-thinking advisors engaged experts in marketing to gauge the future of online branding.
What they knew is that Barack Obama was a blank slate that voters, if sold the right way, would attach whatever meaning they wanted to. There is this impression that Barack Obama was always this cool and media savvy candidate and his advisors all just sat around in awe at his political sermons. We think of him like that because they want us to – by design.
Obama has never been forward-thinking or revolutionary as it comes to liberal politics. It feels that way, because he is packaged that way. The attraction to Obama was almost based on branding alone. Had his team gone a different direction, with one of several rejected logos, the election could have in fact gone a very different direction.
Pre-Obama political design was much like anything else in pre-Obama politics: it wasn’t so much about branding ideas as a corporate identity, as it was an ornament to what the candidate was saying. We didn’t view candidates as a simple aside to whatever the advertising was around them. The branding was a complement to the candidate. With Obama, that paradigm was flipped. Political design was restricted to the candidate’s name and choice of serif or sans-serif font so it didn’t overshadow the message of the candidate themselves.
But Barack Obama didn’t have a lot to say.
The sloganeering he did sell he sold very well. He played his part perfectly as a spokesperson of a larger branding campaign, and for the most part still does. Obama’s marketing and his logo specifically acted as a shield for him to hide his rather extremist views and associations. People had to believe they weren’t voting for a candidate for President with very little background information and experience. They had to believe they were part of a movement. A pop culture phenomena. People want to be a part of fad movements because culture is like a comet. We never know when or even if these moments will come around again. The gravitational pull to belong to it becomes irresistible. If a candidate allows themselves to be defined by the branding around them, they become a symbol. They become Pepsi or Nike or a sports team, creating lifelong, loyal fans, not voters. That’s what defines the success behind Barack Obama. Barack Obama’s worldview is irrelevant when Shepard Fairey is immortalizing him into pop culture.
This was just another area (along with voter outreach and data mining) where the Obama team, through very good market calculations, were able to reduce the GOP to the party of constantly trying to catch up. Barack Obama came across to impressionable consumers as a popular product, not a politician, and it immediately made John McCain look older than he already was. Mitt Romney’s branding identity was better. His team embraced cleaner and more modern design but in the end it just simply felt like they were ripping off Obama whose team had moved on to simple Gotham font and instagram filters. Voters will always choose “the real thing.”
The idea of this kind of political branding lionization won’t be going away.
In 2015, Hillary Clinton specifically is attempting the exact same type of campaign, even to the point of bringing on former Obama advisors to help rejuvenate her image. Within hours of announcing her candidacy, Hillary Clinton’s social media identity had changed over to a similar corporate branding identity, complete with website redesign logo. Gone is the stark black and white picture of her, hungover with Blackberry in hand, staring at mysterious emails that no long exist. Voters are now expected to buy into Hillary’s design entity, just as they were Obama’s.
The results thus far have been lukewarm at best.
Her logo was widely panned by design experts and critics and deservedly so. Like most things Hillary, it came across as someone trying too hard to capture the identity of someone they’re not. John Ekdahl of Ace of Spades observed on Twitter how Hillary Clinton chose Brooklyn, the design Mecca of the United States as her hip, young, cool, place to set up her campaign, but then rolls out a traditional and safe, boring design that incorporates almost nothing of what made Obama’s evolving brand successful. Users on Reddit even went so far as to completely redesign her logo using a Shutterstock image, and distributed it on social media hoping for the campaign to wake up and take notice. Graphic Designer, Rick Wolf created an entire typeface based on the logo which the Washington Post turned into a word generator. Conservatives had just as much, if not more, fun with this than devotees of Clinton. MS Paint or a hospital road sign seemed to be the prevailing go-to reactions as to what the Hillary ‘H’ evoked. Despite all the humorous attempts to modernize it, Hillary’s logo is lifeless, flat and immobile, all suitable (if not subconsciously telling) descriptions of the client it represents.
And yet: none of these criticisms actually matter. They miss the point entirely.
The actual design of the logo is irrelevant compared to the collective purpose it serves and why. It’s not the logo that matters, it’s what the consumer projects onto it. Like any other logo or brand design, you have to understand the motivations of the designer.
Michael Bierut, the founder of Design Observer and co-partner at Pentagram (yes, Hillary’s campaign contracted a design firm named Pentagram) is the chief design architect behind Hillary’s logo and one of the giants in the design industry. He’s familiar to just about any design professional or, at the very least, to anyone who has seen the 2007 documentary Helvetica. “A lot of what we see happening in a logo isn’t actually happening in a logo – it happens in our own mind,” Bierut states in a short interview for Design Indaba (video above). “What’s interesting, particularly, about that kind of telegraphic communication is that it it is inherently participatory.” This is the clearest explanation as to why political candidates, post-Obama, should feel the need for any kind of logo to begin with, and why a branding identity is now so vital to their success.
“You’re sort of taking all that experience you’ve had with that product or that institution or whomever that symbol represents and you’re imposing it onto what can be very simple shapes that really have no inherent meaning at all.” From here on out and for the rest of her political life, for better or worse, Hillary is stuck with that H.
The branding resonance that grew up around the branding of Barack Obama felt organic (it wasn’t). With a 67-year-old Hillary Clinton it already feels forced and is perhaps the most symbolic struggle so far of why Clinton will struggle between siphoning off Obama’s youthful pop culture iconography, while trying to distance herself from his very real policy failures and stake out her own positions as the grand elder stateswoman and not his third term. The media, along with the DNC, have admitted that their goal is to “Kardashianize” Hillary Clinton: embed her so far into the pop-culture consciousness of the country that Election Day is all but a foregone conclusion. The forward-pointing H is meant to protect Hillary from her lack of record and shady associations, just as Obama’s shield did for his. It will be a much more difficult task for her to achieve than it was for him, but it may not matter if she reaches brand status.
This is the game we all are forced to play now. Candidates aren’t just pushing their policy positions anymore. They are pushing their identity as brands. The exact same way Pepsi Cola or a celebrity would. Sunday morning appearances on talk shows with dwindling audiences aren’t good enough. There must be a presence on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat, Pinterest and Reddit that goes beyond their basic political messaging. This is the reason good branding is so crucial and why members of media circle around and breathlessly try to breakdown the meaning of why Rand Paul’s logo resembles Tinder (it doesn’t) or why Ted Cruz’s logo looks like a tear drop (it does). Marco Rubio’s team abandoned bold logo design almost completely, opting for a design identity that would be fresh – if his 2016 online store sold home pregnancy tests.
So far all three declared GOP candidate campaigns are opting for a more traditional design identity while, for better or worse, Hillary’s arrow is instantly recognizable. Notice: I didn’t include either Hillary’s 2016 logo or Obama’s in this piece, and yet most people reading this already have both seared into their minds, and that’s the overall value provided by this new age of political branding.
GOP candidates have caught up and caught on but they ignore the importance of brand recognition when it comes to their campaigns at their own peril. Come 2016 the country will be looking for a new identity, and it may just decide to settle on the one they recognize the most.
– SM –