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The Blanding of America

There's a lot at stake when selling presidential candidates--so why is their branding so stupifyingly dull?

Illustration: Michael Byers

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One of the most indelible and enduring images of the 2008 presidential campaign was candidate Barack Obama's logo: a simple, clean, blue "O" rising like a sun above a prairie of receding red stripes. The design was instantly iconic, evoking hope, change, and a new dawn--all major themes of the Illinois senator's campaign.

Close your eyes and you can probably conjure it. The same can't be said of the logo for John McCain's campaign, or Hillary Clinton's. Obama's, created by Chicago-based designer Sol Sender, was so successful as a branding device that the president's team is using it again, only slightly tweaked, for the 2012 election.

"Obama really changed the way in which design can be used effectively for a candidate," says Debbie Millman, president of the design division at Sterling Brands. Millman credits the president's branding success to the oldest tricks in the ad book: simplicity and repetition. "It was a tremendously successful logo," she says. "He had a really powerful message--that 'change' message--and he repeated it over and over and over again. The consistency of that identity was even stronger than the identity itself. He owned the idea of change."

"The president's logo is totally the gold standard of any political candidate's logo," adds Scott Stowell, founder of the design shop Open.

(Of course, another recognizable image from that election cycle helped spread Obama's message and gave his image an added jolt of street cred: underground artist Shepard Fairey's mixed-media, stenciled "Hope" poster, which itself created a domino effect of other indie-produced Obama posters and artwork.)

That personal branding matters in modern politics is a lesson that dates back to the first televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, in which the dashing young senator from Massachusetts outshone the flop-sweating, unshaven vice president. But in 2008, for the first time, a candidate was successfully branded with as much design polish as personal swagger. And it helped carry Barack Hussein Obama straight into the White House.

If the election were held today based solely on branding prowess, Obama would handily carry the day again. This, at least, is the conclusion reached by a handful of the nation's leading graphic designers in a series of discussions with Adweek. When talking about design, the graphical gurus know what works. And they don't seem impressed by any of the GOP's initial 2012 efforts.

Political branding today is, in a word, bad. The experts all say the typical Republican logo has lost its macho mojo--think Bush's bold 2004 "W" graphical byte, McCain's 2008 optimum font, evoking the type on the Vietnam Memorial--and gone soft. It's also lost its ideological heft. "I don't think there's much good out there," Milton Glaser, the National Medal of Arts recipient behind the "I Love New York" logo and CBS Records' "Bob Dylan" poster--a black silhouette with psychedelic hair--tells Adweek.

"Nobody is taking the branding seriously," adds Millman. "It's really laughable. And it's shocking, given the sophistication of Obama's branding. The difference between Obama and the other candidates is that it's 360 degrees consistent."

In other words, the logo reflects the message, and vice versa. What's Mitt Romney trying to convey with the drippy "R" in his logo? What's that schmear of toothpaste across the "H" in Michele Bachmann's name? Why does Jon Huntsman's logo, perhaps the most sophisticated of the lot, look like it belongs to a hotel chain? These designs evoke nothing much, experts say, and tell us less than nothing about the candidates.

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