This article was featured in Co.Design on January 30, 2019
American political campaign branding has been dominated by red, white, and blue (RWB) for far too long. Yes, these are the colors of our beloved flag, but the idea that presidential candidates have an unspoken obligation to pay homage to classic symbols of patriotism with their campaign branding seems decidedly outdated. Our culture and our politics have come a long way since our flag was designed. Branding has become more sophisticated and pervasive, coming at us from every conceivable angle both on and offline.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s game-changing presidential campaign, with its deep appreciation for the power of design as an organizing tool, reinvigorated political branding for the digital age. Now, a diverse pool of female democratic presidential candidates is shaking things up at a time when our country is in desperate need of a new vision for leadership. They are leading the next big leap in presidential branding — breaking the RWB color barrier — and as a result, opening the door for change.
While the RWB mantra has dominated the last century of presidential campaign branding, there have been a few rebels along the way. The most radical was Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980. A wealthy peanut farmer from Georgia, Carter’s view of patriotism was rooted in the green fields of rural America. He cultivated his image as a working man more comfortable on the farm than in bustling cities. He was often pictured in open collar shirts and blue jeans, which was unprecedented for presidential campaigns. For Carter, the disciplined use of green and white throughout all of his campaign materials was a sort of love letter to nature. He rode the green all the way to the presidency in 1976. But Carter is the lone mainstream candidate within the two major parties who has taken a detour from the RWB highway of American presidential campaign branding.
Two other campaigns are notable for their nonconformity, although their use of alternative colors wasn’t as thorough as Carter’s. The first two African-American candidates for president from a major party — Democrats Shirley Chisholm in 1972 and Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 — both incorporated bright yellows into their materials. In a stirring speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, Jackson foreshadowed what some current candidates are playing out through their brands:
“Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow ― red, yellow, brown, black and white,” Jackson said, “and we’re all precious in God’s sight.”
The significance of these candidacies is undeniable. They created a foundation upon which we can build a broader visual language to accurately reflect the diversity of our national identity.
With the exceptions of the Carter, Chisholm, and Jackson campaigns, postwar presidential campaign brands within the Republican and Democratic parties have stayed well within the the RWB “safe zone”.
Back in 2013, Matt Ipcar, then VP of strategy at Blue State Digital, gave a Lunch Talk at Hyperakt. The talk was a post-mortem on the process of updating Barack Obama’s now famous presidential campaign identity from its 2008 gradient glory to the more in vogue, flat versions used for the 2012 campaign. During the talk, Matt gave our audience of designers some memorable advice in the event they found themselves working on future presidential campaigns:
“Use red, white, and blue. Don’t fuck around — we’re not ready for green!”
I remember clearly how spot-on Matt’s wisdom felt at the time. The high production value and disciplined branding of the Obama campaigns deserve a great deal of credit for raising the standards of campaign branding, proving that great branding provides a powerful platform to build trust, tell stories and engage the public imagination. But experimenting with non-traditional color palettes was never in the cards. His campaign branding was more concerned with quality and modernity than it was with confronting established norms. His mantras of optimism and hope were appropriately conveyed with brighter blues than had been common until that point, but that’s about as far as he pushed the color envelope. I worked on a series of posters in support of the Obama campaign in 2008 and remember very intentionally exploring non-traditional color palettes precisely because it felt like something the official campaign would never do.
Why change now?
To say the least, the first two years of the Trump presidency have been tumultuous. The relentless attack on our civil liberties has decidedly pushed the Democratic party further to the left in an attempt to counter the administration’s embrace of the hard right. Democrats are poised to have the largest and most diverse pool of primary candidates ever. In the age of MAGA, these candidates are trying to redefine what patriotism means in an inclusive, multi-racial, ethnic and cultural society in search of racial, social, economic and environmental justice.
After nearly a century of red, white and blue dominance, four mainstream women candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard — have embraced color palettes that break from the established norm.
Democratic women are making strategic choices that leverage their campaign branding to send a signal to the country that this time, things are different. This is not politics as usual.
Elizabeth Warren sets off the fairly traditional dark blue and red in her palette with an unexpected mint green to freshen things up. The overall impression gives off a fitting academic activist vibe.
Kamala Harris’s branding features a blueish purple, a desaturated red and a joyful, buttery yellow. The choice of yellow is an homage to Shirley Chisholm’s historic candidacy launched 47 years to the day before her own candidacy. Harris is half Jamaican and half Indian, and the palette of her branding comes across as an authentic celebration of both her identity and our multiracial and multicultural society.
Kirsten Gillibrand has a long track record advocating for women. She’s putting her feminist credentials front and center and reinforcing her pledge to make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign with her choice of “pussy hat” pink.
Tulsi Gabbard makes use of a radiant orange sun in her mark to pair well with her “bright future” slogan and to remind us of her Hawaiian origins.
So far in this campaign, Democratic women have decided that it’s more important to use their brands to celebrate their own unique identities and priorities rather than stick to the standard Red, White and Blue patriotic dogma.
By contrast, the men who have entered the race thus far have taken fewer risks. Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney, Andrew Yang, and Richard Ojeda (who has already dropped out of the race) all came out of the gate swaddled in the usual stars, stripes, and RWB. Pending decisions from Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders on whether or not to enter the race, the strongest candidates on the men’s side right now are Julián Castro and Cory Booker.
Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, Obama Cabinet member, and Democratic National Convention keynote speaker, has made some smart design moves with his branding. He has stayed away from visual clichés and has cleverly called attention to his Mexican roots by highlighting the accent in his first name, Julián. The brand notably downplays his last name, which might conjure up unsavory associations to Cuba’s former dictator for some voters.
Booker’s campaign also focused on the candidate’s first name, opting for some fresh bold typography in their mark. The campaign’s brand applications and website prominently feature Booker’s toothy smile front and center positioning him as the optimist in a campaign filled with candidates who convey anger and indignation about the current state of affairs in our nation. That could go either way for him –– it’s a differentiator, but it feels a bit dissonant for the moment.
Despite the branding strengths of these two campaigns, their traditional color choices feel like a missed opportunity. In Castro’s case, the limited blue palette does little to convey warmth, approachability, or a bold vision for new leadership. In Booker’s case, a little bit more adventurousness could have helped send a signal that he’s not another boilerplate member of the Democratic political machine.
Unlike the female candidates, the men have 45 male presidents to whom they can harken back. Men continue to lean on the conventional wisdom and branding playbook of past winners. The result is a collection of bland, generic brands that feel like politics as usual at a time when Democrats have expressed a thirst for fresh, courageous leadership. This inability to think differently when it comes to branding — an exercise in trust-building and clear communication — is a clue we shouldn’t ignore about the leadership styles these candidates would bring to the presidency. For better or for worse, women have no such standard to uphold or rules to abide by.
So what? What do a few color choices mean anyway?
In the world of branding, color choices are very carefully considered. Color is a fundamental way brands set themselves apart from their competitors and establish their own unique identity in the public’s imagination. In the abstract, colors trigger cultural associations and emotions in our minds. Brands build on these associations to communicate values, personality, heritage, places of origin, and more. Confining the color sandbox brands can inhabit within a given sector severely limits the ability they have to set themselves apart from the crowd.
There are cases when a new niche market segment closely associates itself with a color as a unified front to build understanding. For example, a Google image search for “environmentally friendly cleaning products” will yield a lot of green product packaging. But awareness of this segment is starting to mature, so brands like Method have broadened their horizons well beyond green to carve their own space.
In campaign politics we have been stuck on RWB forever as if we, as a country, haven’t yet internalized that those are the colors of our flag. Why is it necessary for every candidate to be bound to the flag’s colors as a confirmation of their devoted patriotism? They’re running for office of the highest ranking public servant in the country. Can we not assume that running for president requires superhuman patriotism? It would serve everyone well if the candidates were freed from this duty so they can use color to help reveal who they really are to the voting public.
The AOC Effect
This story would be incomplete without acknowledging the massive impact the Midterm Elections have had on 2020 campaign branding thus far.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re probably aware that Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became an overnight sensation by defeating a long-time incumbent in her New York district. Her grassroots victory made her the youngest Congresswoman in history. Her populist rhetoric, raw energy, and authenticity on screen and in social media have made her the most visible face of the new Democratic party, less than a year into her political career. AOC (as she’s known by her followers) possesses a media savvy that’s beginning to look like the Trump antidote Democrats were sorely missing. She has become the brightest young star in the party since Obama appeared on the scene at the 2004 Democratic Convention.
This poster gave license to all candidates moving forward to wear their colors proudly.
AOC’s unorthodox (by American political design standards) campaign branding provided a convenient trial balloon for 2020 candidates. Her campaign identity brilliantly blended influence from grassroots movement posters with a color palette that bypassed red, white and blue cliches of patriotism in favor of purples and yellows. The typography, all set at a dynamic angle in both English and Spanish, is complimented by a headshot that manages to feel both determined and friendly at the same time. The overall result felt refreshingly different and completely authentic in its encapsulation of AOC’s candidacy. Most importantly, she won! Without a doubt, every Democratic candidate noticed her iconic branding, as did every designer working on their campaigns.
Back to the Future
We need brave new leadership that categorically rejects the misguided notion that America was at its greatest when it was white-first and defined by conservative Christian values. Our nation has evolved and so must our politics. We are not monolithic and homogenous, nor have we ever been. The fact that we are a multiracial and multicultural society is one of the attributes that makes America so great. Our leaders need to be laser focused on building a more equitable America where our diversity can truly shine.
Today more than ever we need to see and celebrate all that makes us different, build empathy and understanding around those differences, and strive for harmony in a pluralistic society. Design has an important role to play in facilitating the authentic communication that needs to happen to make these ideals a reality.