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How Branding Plays a Major Role in U.S. Politics

Chris Wilks, Laura Puente, Bo Bothe, Jonathan Fisher


Solving for B°
How Branding Plays a Major Role in U.S. Politics

BrandExtract Podcast Episode 4

Branding has historically played a big role in the political process, and the 2016 election cycle was no exception. In this episode of the Solving for B° Podcast, our experts dive into the importance of staying true to your brand, finding your voice and expressing your message in an effective way. We also look at how branding has played a big part in historical U.S. elections.

Read the Transcript

*This transcript has been edited and formatted for readability.

The Role of Branding in Politics

Chris: Today I'm joined by CEO, Bo Bothe; Chairman, Jonathan Fisher; and Director of Marketing Communications, Laura Puente.

And in today's episode, we're going to discuss the role of branding in politics.

What drew us to the topic was that a lot of us here – like I'm sure a lot of people out there – were fascinated by the 2016 election cycle. And more specifically, the role that branding played.

Is branding important in politics? Does it play a role?

Laura: Absolutely. I think throughout our own American history, we've seen it play out in terms of the individual and the party. We've seen a lot of dynamics throughout the years, but particularly in this election, as you mentioned.

Bo: Yeah, it's been pretty interesting. We have always had the elephants and the donkeys, but this year it seemed like both parties had a really hard time finding their voice, and when they did, it was pretty interesting for everyone.

Jonathan: I think that Trump came to this market as a savvy brand since the beginning. He's familiar with the luxury brand concept, so he employed many of the techniques that he had used in business. That's where I saw the brand really step up in its role.

Laura: And that helped him. Despite the turmoil within his campaign – like going through different campaign managers – his message stayed the same.

Bo: He was pretty true to his brand. That's what he had been purporting himself as on TV and in the world; this pretty bombastic, loud, proud person. He stayed true to that. Whether we like it or not, the reality was he was the same and has been the same since.

A History of Political Branding

Chris: I find interesting that branding in politics seems to be as old as politics itself. Do you guys have any specific examples, evidence or anecdotes of such a case?

Bo: One example is the “I Like Ike Eisenhower” campaign, which brought music into this. The song was written by a pretty famous composer at the time. And then it was put over an animation that showed people marching to a beat.

A second example relates to Andrew Jackson, who's coming up a lot right now because of the populist trend, and like Thomas Jefferson, was a populist. Jackson had the “Old Hickory” branding at the time when John Quincy Adams in the first election portrayed him negatively.

This has happened since the before our political system even started.

Jonathan: The role that branding played was driven, in part, because of low literacy rates. People needed symbolism; basic concepts that they could grasp or wrap their heads around. So the Hickory Sticks, the simple slogans, were often driven by need, if not strategy for just the concept of brand unification.

Chris: Right, to give them something to relate to.

Bo: I think we still find that simplicity today. With so much information and noise, everybody's looking for something to grasp. Whether you're pro or con, you're looking for something to run with because there's so much out there going on at the same time.

Jonathan: That's part of the role of establishing a brand.

Hillary Clinton's Branding Strategy

Laura: Something that worked against Hillary Clinton was the lack of consistency over time. She's been around for decades in the political limelight, but at this critical point, her messages got a little bit fragmented. Whether that was because of her team, herself or other messages that were out there, a lot of her core platforms got lost.

Chris: It seems like she was pulled in a few different directions, and that resulted in that inconsistency. One of the things we like to say here at BrandExtractis that you don't own your brand, you manage it. And it seems like Hillary fell victim to that. 

Laura: It's a perfect example, whether it's here or anybody. Especially now that there are so many channels that other people can use to manage your brand. There's obviously the traditional media on TV, but then anybody can create noise and distraction on social media, or by having these events that then get publicized. There's a lot of external influence that, I think, is just going to grow.

Bo: Yeah, and I think a designer may have gotten to her too early. Think about the concept of “Forward.” “Forward” is different for everyone. When you look at her identity and her logo, and you do research on why it was created the way it was, that logo had a flexible symbol. The arrow, in its standards guide, was able to put in pictures of the different things she believed in.

But all of a sudden, after a long campaign cycle, it started to represent a lot of individual things but it never represented anything bigger. It's easier to get your head around “Make America Great Again” as opposed to “Forward.”

Jonathan: I think both concepts have ambiguity and they can both be interpreted differently. The idea of ambiguity was there – even Trump struggled with his identity. The first mark he came out with didn't last long at all. It was turned into a meme immediately.

Bo: I don't want to make this a conversation about logos, but I think that goes back to how direct it is. “Make America Great” can be different, but it is direct. “Forward” is such a gray term, it's hard to understand. "Forward" for what?

Those are the challenges that I think both campaigns had, but I believe one was a little easier to get your head around.

And when a leader in any kind of organization shares a vision, they have to be clear and it's got to be something that people can relate to. Again, they're all going to relate to it differently, but the more confusing, the harder to get other people excited about it.

Branding Political Parties

Chris: Another thing I found interesting was the political parties and how they've branded themselves. 

In preparation for this episode, we were talking a little bit about the symbols for each party and what they represent. I think often times we can look at them as just the elephant and the donkey, but there's a reason for those.

Do you want to talk a little bit about their history and what they represent?

Bo: It's really hard to find definitively why, but we all look at things and we make judgments. We're constantly trying to take that out of a lot of what's going on, but we all stereotype. We all look at something and go, “That means this.” I'll look at an elephant, I might be positive, and somebody will look at an elephant and be negative. I'll look at a donkey and think one thing, and somebody will look at a donkey and think another.

What happens is you almost have to be true. For example, Republicans are typically seen as the war guys, the budget-conscious people, the fiscal responsibility, etc. Democrats are typically seen as more socially aware, more into the population, more populist to be quite frank, historically.

So this was one of the most amazing things to me. You've got the elephant that's slow and plodding, and you've got the donkey – both of them working hard but the donkey's the workhorse; the common people, the common man.

This election cycle turned that on its head, and in the past, that's bitten people. When Nixon tried to be friendly, he was a Republican and Republicans weren't friendly. When Dukakis tried to be in a war and put himself in a tank, it just didn't fit the perception most people had.

So this election was really interesting in that you had a Republican take a populist tone and it worked. Why was that? Those symbols and history play into what we think about things, even though someone may have a different message. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out.

Jonathan: If you go back to the origins of the symbolism, which, I think, came from the political cartoonists of those days, they were designed as not a positive, but as a negative symbol.

So, the role that symbolism has played speaks back to what we talked about – you don't own a brand, you manage it.  These parties have adopted something that was given to them to manage, so they're trying to take control of the symbolism. 

Donald Trump's Branding Strategy

Chris: I think that's a great example of how you might be given a brand, but it's up to you what to do with it.

Jonathan: Trump managed his brand, there's no doubt about it. He did a really good job of managing the brand that he wanted to manage.

He managed the Trump name for its luxury and his “I'm not a politician” for his independent, anti-politician role. He specifically managed those components within his campaign and in his rhetoric. 

Chris: I think people had gotten so tired of Washington being stagnant and that they seem like they're up on the hill just fighting all the time. Trump then tapped into that, and said, “I'm not a part of this whole system.” I think it's an example of Trump taking his brand and manipulating it, or rather, putting himself in the best position to succeed based on the outside environment.

Bo: You hesitated on the word "manipulating," but that's what they're doing. Now, manipulation can be used for good or bad. A brand is a perception. It's not real. Reality is how you act. So you can purport yourself and manipulate messages to be honest and true to who you are. And that's what happened. I think Hillary Clinton was very true to who she was, but it was because of the way they wanted her to manage the brand that it became a lot of different things.

You see the introduction of Bernie Sanders and a different part of the party, she had to play to something that didn't look like it fit her. It may have fit perfectly, but it didn't look like it. Whereas Trump was Trump.

Jonathan: I think Trump capitalized on the frustrations that were in Washington at the time. People were frustrated on both sides of the party. Clinton was representing another dynasty, like the Bushes, while Trump was the anti-politician choice, and I think he used that to his advantage.

Bo: I think Jonathan's absolutely right. Separate brand, both candidates tapped into different things. It was just that one group tapped into a set of states that worked better. It's interesting to watch that play out.

Laura: What determines success in the political branding realm? You could say on one hand success is determined by winning, but Trump didn't win the popular vote, so how does that fit?

Is success being able to deliver on your promises? Is it about having a consistent message regardless of being able to manage the external influences that might make it impossible for you to deliver on those promises? Or is it a legacy that generations later, you're still known? And known for what?

Bo: It's been kind of funny talking about this because we're all walking on pins and needles trying to be careful, but the reality was this whole election cycle tapped into something that got people emotional and they are more bought in.

In terms of branding, when you make a promise and when you make it so profoundly, you better deliver on it no matter how good or bad it works.

Now, I think with politics people have really short memories. A lot of leaders set out to do something, and then they find reality. Reality doesn't fit with what they were trying to do, or they understand better what needs to happen, so they can’t really fulfill all promises.

Time will tell, but I do believe that the Trump brand put itself in great jeopardy by being so strong about what was going to happen. However, that conviction did help in the election. But will it help when moving forward?

A leader should be somebody that's confident and definitive about what they're going to do, but also somebody that gets done what they want to get done.

Jonathan: During his campaign, Trump made a lot of contradictory statements and also pissed off a lot of people. And he was consistent on that. The problem is that now that you can't run the country the same way that you run a campaign. So he'll have to adjust his brand and he'll have to adjust his strategies to succeed.

Maintaining a Political Brand

Chris: That's well put. Now there's a second act of having to govern. How do people do that successfully and maintain their political brand?

Bo: It's the same way with company leaders. Usually, new leadership comes in with a vision for where they want to take the company. Then they start working and see what reality actually looks like. No matter their tone, the businesses that our clients work in are really complex. So when they come in with their new vision, they've got to deliver on something, even if it may not look at all like what they thought it was going to look like.

But to Laura's point, how they deliver the message is a big part of how people will perceive them and whether people will give them a break if it doesn't work out exactly the right way. So that's a big part of branding, too. People have to trust you. Trust is beyond just thinking you'll do something. It's believing that it's going to work.

Chris: Well, I think this topic is so big that we could spend hours discussing all the nuances and intricacies of political branding, but I think this is a good stopping point for today. So, thank you Bo, Jonathan and Laura for joining us today.

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