Call me an idealist, but I’d like to think that presidential candidates put a great deal of thought into the symbols and stories that represent them. Assuming that’s the case, I’m about to embark on a totally non-partisan, unbiased* review of what’s behind their branding choices. Care to join? Let’s do this.
First things first: what should we call you? Are you Hillary, the always-agreeable neighbor from the block? Or are you Mr. Trump, a successful businessman keeping a certain distance? The notion of Power Distance is key here. Can we approach and greet you using your first name, or will our relationship always be marked by a certain level of formality?
First Names and Power Distance
Social psychologist Geert Hofstede defined Power Distance as the extent to which a society believes that power is distributed unequally. Countries with a low Power Distance Index, like the United States, evidence more horizontal structures in which subordinates and their bosses work under an “open door” policy. In countries with a high Power Distance Index, such relationships are authoritarian, formal and there is a clear divide that shines through in the way people address each other.
Clinton’s decision to go by Hillary and Donald’s decision to go by Trump are not arbitrary. When you address others using their first name, there’s an underlying signal that there isn’t much space between them and you. On the contrary, using someone’s last name reinforces that person’s distant position.
Presidential candidates might want to tap into those associations for various reasons. In Hillary’s case, coming from a renowned political family creates an unreachable halo that could hurt her ability to connect with voters. Going by her first name reduces that tension. So does choosing ultra-hipster Brooklyn, NY as her campaign headquarters.
In Trump’s case, playing up the self-made, politically disconnected nature of his career makes complete sense. So does selecting his giant Fifth Avenue tower as the headquarters of “Make America Great Again”. Why would he go by Donald, when Trump is plastered all over skyscrapers in the country he hopes to run? It is precisely his perceived ability to create wealth what connects Donald Trump with voters. And the key word here, my friends, is perceived. In the world of political branding, for better or worse, perceptions are everything.
Last Names and Political Baggage
As I’ve hinted thus far, last names come with their fair amount of family history. Think about your own last name: doesn’t it help others associate you with past and present actions that your family members have engaged in? That same effect applies to political brands. Like it or not, your last name comes with desirable or undesirable baggage.
Choosing to downplay or showcase your family’s political history is entirely up to you. For Hillary, it means reminding everyone that she has been in the Oval Office before. Going by her last name would mean that she’s embracing her President-Clinton-2 persona. To all intents and purposes, the Clinton last name stands for political royalty. However, the drawback to having held power for so long is the reality that others can hold you accountable for the way in which you’ve used it. That’s where the Clintons and the Trumps are fundamentally different: while the first have led political decision-making for decades, the second have steered policy from behind the scenes. For various reasons, including the voter empathy that I explained above, Mrs. Clinton was much better off branding her campaign as Hillary.
Needless to say, I find a candidate’s brand name choice quite fascinating. Let’s now look at their visual symbols, an equally transcendental decision.
Time to shake our right brains a bit. When it comes down to political logo design, there are three things to analyze: color, typography and symbols.
Before I even get started with color psychology, I will say this: there’s nothing innovative in using red and blue in the context of US politics. Having said that, there are different hues and levels of saturation that can reflect a candidate’s values and point of view. For reference, look at the color palettes representing this year’s leading presidential candidates (for each party) versus those of their closest contenders:
It is clear that Bernie and Ted Cruz (and I’m using strictly their wordmarks here) are using red and blue hues that depart more from the standard. But what is that standard? Well, the United States flag of course. Specifically:
- Old Glory Red: #BF0A30
- Old Glory Blue: #002868
Looking at Hillary and Trump’s choices side by side gives us a much clearer perspective on their differences. While the democratic candidate opted for brighter shades of red and blue, Trump went for dimmer, more regal tones. Trump’s choice of red is closer to a velvety maroon with a blue undertone, while Hillary’s is the kind of bright, warmer red that reminds you of food. Yet another example of the formal vs. casual tension I brought up above.
Unlike Bernie, who went for a slab serif, and Ted Cruz, who chose a classic serif, Hillary and Trump are using sans-serif fonts. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is working with a custom version of a font family called Sharp Sans. Headlines are tightly kerned, meaning letters are purposely close to each other. This technique projects dynamism, symmetry, efficiency and a sense of stability that is immediately associated with the candidate. Two notes here:
- The letters’ even weights make them appear balanced, like some of the candidate’s viewpoints
- The sharp terminals say non-conforming, like some of the candidate’s positions
On the other hand, Trump opted for a sans-serif font in all caps. Steve Heller, at Wired, suggested that we might be looking at a heavy version of Franklin Gothic. Regardless of the specific font family, there are few things to note about this choice:
- the font weight chosen is bold, like the candidate’s remarks.
- the caps are loud, like the candidate’s personality.
- the letters are spaced to appear classic and conservative, like some of the candidate’s viewpoints.
What’s the significance of selecting five stars to represent your vision? What does it mean to choose an arrow? Let’s begin with Trump. The idea of “five stars” is closely associated with quality rating systems where 1 is low and 5 is high. This notion is reinforced in hotels, restaurants, Uber… you name it. We’ve been trained to connect the dots that way. Seeing five stars triggers an association with excellence. The same culture of excellence or greatness that Donald Trump’s claims America should go back to. This is nothing new: consumer psychology studies have shown that the brain creates associations between different “nodes” (ideas or concepts) to activate others. It’s how our memory works.
Before you jump to point fingers, Trump is not the only one using this method. Our brains have been exposed to the idea that a right-pointing arrow signals movement, progress and change. These three, for example, will lead your eye into reading the next sentence → → → right?
now you’re looking down…
OK, enough experimentation for now. This is what happens in your subconscious when you start associating Hillary with her arrow. All of a sudden, she stands for a path forward, progress, growth. All things the first female president should stand for, right? Glad we agree.
Let’s get this out of the way: I hate the term “slogan”. It’s empty, clichéd, and vastly misunderstood. Instead, I refer to a brand’s short value proposition as its promise. In this case, both candidates have presented phrases that encapsulate their vision for the country. Some of those phrases have sucked, and been blatantly dismissed by their followers. As of March 16, 2016, these are the two phrases that we keep hearing from candidates:
- I’m With Her — #ImWithHer
- Make America Great Again — #MakeAmericaGreatAgain
The Feminist appeal in I’m With Her
When you’re the only her in the presidential run, you want to play it up. Think about it: if a voter were to be randomly surveyed and responded “I’m with her”, how many candidates would that leave us with? It’s clear that Hillary’s candidacy presents a viable opportunity for the United States to have its first-ever female president. However, that also means that the US might have it’s first First… Dude? That, added to the fact that he’s actually a returning resident of the White House, makes “I’m With Her” a brilliant negation of everything outside of Hillary that might hurt her chances. After all, “I’m With Her”, not him, it, or them. Just her.
The Reagan card in Make America Great Again
In 1980, then Republican candidate Ronald Reagan used “Let’s Make America Great Again” as a campaign slogan. It’s not a secret. No one is trying to hide it: Donald Trump is reusing this tried and true Republican saying to remind voters of Reagan’s vision. In doing so, Trump is purposely associating his public persona to that of the 40th president of the United States. In a 2013 survey by Gallup, over 60% of participants said they believed Ronald Reagan would go down in history as an outstanding president. That makes him the second best rated US president since the 60s. It also makes him an incredibly rich source of political capital. If you’re a Republican running in 2016, you want to be linked to Reagan.
If I’ve done anything right today, this does not surprise you at all:
A photo posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on
Bottom line: look closer.
A few years ago I decided to combine graduate degrees in both design and psychology because I felt that a conscientious analysis of visual symbols should draw from both disciplines. I honestly hope that this article opens a conversation around the underlying messages that voters like you and I are exposed to every day.
* I’m not a US registered voter, nor am I a member of any political party mentioned here.