Political Branding in the USA

Let’s start with a quick quiz.  Ever see these images?

Sagearbor, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

What does this picture of a red elephant mean to you?

  • Conservatism.
  • Preservationists.
  • Wealth.
  • Less government intervention (i.e., small government).
  • Donald Trump and George Bush.
  • The Republican Party.
  • . . . and perhaps more?

How about the blue donkey?

  • Liberalism.
  • Change.
  • Labor.
  • Government-funded programs (i.e., big government).
  • Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
  • The Democratic Party.
  • . . . etc.?

In other words, simply seeing these logos immediately brings to mind a wide range of adjectives and accompanying images . . . as well as an emotional response!  That said, we recently had an opportunity to witness the practice (and impact) of this very successful branding in action during the American presidential and legislative elections. 

Frankly, we waited until the election was over (and the votes had been counted) to avoid getting lost in endless partisan digression over details when our reason for bringing up the matter is to highlight these examples of powerful branding while the specifics were still front and center in people’s minds.

In politics, branding is sometimes the only basis upon which individuals vote (and brand loyalty plays a huge role).  Since the issues tend to be numerous, complex, frequently boring, and very often as clear as advanced calculus or nuclear physics, people tend to rely upon simplified measures that allow them to cast a vote that will – they feel – provide a shortcut to their approximate philosophical position.   When a Republican or Democrat votes along party lines, that choice generally assures that certain basic qualities will be present and criteria met by the candidate.  For their part, politicians benefit by closely aligning themselves with their chosen brand . . . rather than get lost in platform details.

In general, the most successful politicians not only align themselves closely with their party’s brand but also manage to enhance that foundation with a strong personal brand through use of campaign slogans, colors, and spokespeople-influencers who, in turn, lend their personal brand to the candidate’s.

Questioning whether a campaign slogan really makes a difference?  Then, check out these seven examples that appeared among the “Top 15 Presidential Campaign Slogans” identified by Martin Kelly (updated February 21, 2018):

Don’t Swap Horses in Midstream

“This presidential campaign slogan was successfully used two times while America was in the depths of war. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln used it during the American Civil War. In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt won his fourth term using this slogan during World War II.”

All the Way With LBJ

“In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson used this slogan to successfully win the presidency against Barry Goldwater with over 90% of the electoral votes.”

Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?

“This slogan was used by Ronald Reagan in his 1976 bid for the presidency against incumbent Jimmy Carter.”

Happy Days Are Here Again

“In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt adopted the song, ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ sung by Lou Levin. America was in the depths of the Great Depression and the song was chosen as a foil to candidate Herbert Hoover’s leadership when the depression began.”

Give Em Hell, Harry

“Both a nickname and a slogan, this was used to help bring Harry Truman to victory over Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 election. The Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously printed ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ based on exit polls the night before.”

I Like Ike

“The quintessentially likeable hero of World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower, rose handily to the presidency in 1952 with this slogan proudly displayed on supporters’ buttons across the nation. Some continued the slogan when he ran again in 1956, changing it to ‘I Still Like Ike.’”

Change We Can Believe In

“Barack Obama led his party to victory in the 2008 presidential election with this slogan often simply reduced to one word: Change. It mainly referred to changing presidential policies after eight years with George W. Bush as president.”

In addition to the slogans identified by Kelly above, another recent example would be Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan (MAGA) modified to “Keep America Great” for re-election.  An expert brander, Donald Trump produced a wide range of paraphernalia bearing the phrase . . . and used the words to incite supporters at rallies.

Clearly, catchy statements such as these have been used to define the brand of a candidacy and get voters to identify with the candidate’s cause – tapping into existing associated emotion.   Certain songs have also been employed for branding purposes.  In fact, the artists – recognizing the power of branding – have sometimes ordered campaigns they did not support to stop using the tune – obtaining legal “cease and desist” intervention.

 So, what is the lesson to be learned about branding from the masterful uses employed by politicians?

Branding is the best – and often only – way to simplify complex content for a consumer audience in a way that attaches an emotional response and builds a sense of allegiance to a product.  Furthermore, political branding must (as always) be executed consistently and across all media from billboards to speeches to commercials to ads to pamphlets and flyers to promotional items and more.  The further a brand can be simplified and identified via a short phrase, use of a color, a few bars of a song – the better!

Small businesses can learn much by mimicking the example (however seemingly unsophisticated) of their local politicians building a base of support . . . a constituency.  Frankly, they tend to know their audience well and have found an effective way of appealing to them . . . and those people all represent your existing and potential customers.

A Bit of Trivia:

Ever wonder about the origin of the American political symbols – the elephant and the donkey?  The first appearances of both symbols are credited to the artist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly during the late 1800’s.  (Frankly, some of his cartoons were “Nasty.”)


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