The Blanding of America

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

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.

Ironically, before Obama, it was the Republicans who were better at messaging. "The logos for Democrats tend to be very esoteric," says Karl Gude, graphics editor-in-residence at Michigan State University. "The Republicans know who their base is: It's the tried-and-true patriot who doesn't question authority. The American flag has been hijacked by these people. If you stick an American flag on your bumper, I immediately think you're a Republican."

Gude, a former graphics director at Newsweek, points to the iconography of the 2004 election to illustrate his point. "Kerry's bumper sticker suggested that he was full of doubt. It was wimpy. It was a serif typeface: intellectual and bookish," he says. "Whereas Bush's said, 'You're not a patriot, you're an asshole if you ignore this.' Both of them spoke to the people they were trying to speak to."

Typeface is an important element of the art, says Gude. Gotham, a sans serif font the Republicans have used often in the past, tends to convey strength and leadership. "A serif font is more, like, 'Oh, the Shakespeare festival is coming to town,'" Gude says. "It can be very elegant. Or ugly. But now anybody with Adobe Creative Suite can be a designer. People are making signs with default typefaces, and they're horrible."

Of course, there's only so much a political logo can actually accomplish. "It attempts to produce a sort of atmosphere and attempts to be memorable the next time you see it," notes Glaser. "It always traffics in the existing symbolism and things that people have already seen. So you will see the endless variation of stars and stripes and Statues of Liberty–and everything becomes banal."

To find the last political logo to have as much resonance and effectiveness as Obama's, you'd have to reach into some fairly unfortunate terrain, according to Glaser. "Logos like the swastika are really memorable, though that was an abstraction," he says. The arbitrary symbol, which has been used for various purposes as far back as ancient India, has now become synonymous with fascism. "One of the secrets advertising has learned is you create anything you want and repeat it."

What will be the next logo as successful as Obama's? "It has to come from terrific advertising people," says renowned ad man and Esquire designer George Lois. Lois knows from politics. He helped spearhead Robert Kennedy's successful New York senatorial campaign in 1964, when he was a founding partner at Papert, Koenig, Lois.

A successful logo is instantly recognizable, elegant and simple, like the McDonald's arches, the CBS eye, the Target bull's-eye–and the Obama O. "The logo comes out of what the hell you're doing, and what your point of view is," says Lois. "It won't come from these goddamn political consultants because they're full of shit." 

It's the Message, Stupid

If Obama's branding in 2008 redefined what a presidential candidate's logo can achieve, what can we say about his current crop of would-be challengers? Adweek asked some of the country's leading design gurus their opinions of the logos of the Republicans currently in the race. In a nutshell, Obama's design influence is felt, but nothing comes as close to being so evocative.

Herman Cain

"Dignified to the point of dainty. Clearly angling for credibility with the torch logo, but it looks like the Olympic torch." – Debbie Millman, president of the design division at Sterling Brands

"It's nice that it's a torch; it has meaning. [But] I don't think anyone, including him, is particularly clear what that is." – Scott Stowell, founder of the design shop Open

"It has real elegance. It has a real nice intelligence about it. But no logo can help him now." – Karl Gude, graphics editor-in-residence at Michigan State University

Rick Perry

"It's reminiscent of a car showroom, trying for a badge of trust, but not very memorable." – DM

"It's sort of nothing. It just looks like a big pill that you take." – SS

"I don't like it. It's lost on the page. The red is too deep, you don't really see it; it doesn't stand out." – KG

Jon Huntsman

"A nice reinterpretation of the Hilton logo. Did they provide him with a swag donation for his campaign?" – DM

"It's very nice. Of course, the red is saying 'Republican.' It's sort of a stenciled 'H,' which gives a feeling of activism. It's like something connecting things." – SS

"You could read that as 'I don't connect with the other side of the aisle. My ideas are not unified; I'm falling apart.' I understand why they did it, though, because it does look really nice." – KG

Michele Bachmann

"Old and trite; the branding has a corporate hollowness to it." – DM

"There are things that look very much part of this Obama world, this particular kind of blue and glowing background that feels inspirational." – SS

"The spacing between all the letters is too spread out. It looks weak, like you could just blow it away. It needs to be more of an anchored, kerned typeface." – KG

Mitt Romney

"Simple and self-confident, but very much about the man–not so much about our country or our future." – DM

"It's the opposite of the Obama logo. It's a drippy thing that doesn't stand for anything." – SS

"The 'R' is really awkward. It looks like it wants to fall over, without that leg to stand on." – KG

Newt Gingrich

"His branding and website look like a banking identity. Is it intentional?" – DM

"It's very much in the world of Rick Santorum, where it's a remix of the stars and stripes." – SS

"I like it a lot. I think it says 'strong,' it says 'unity.' The only thing I really, really hate about it is his name. 'Newt.' His being a salamander is hard for me to overcome." – KG

Rick Santorum

"For a corporation, it would feel established, and a bit stuffy." –DM

"This logo is so conservative. It just looks like it's from the past. It looks like a candidate running in 1982 or earlier." – SS

"I'm seeing 'Rick Sant,' and then 'Rum' on the right. Unless you know Rick Santorum, you wouldn't know that's an 'O.' You think his name is Rick Sant and he's into rum." – KG

Ron Paul

"Ron Paul's identity system rivals Verizon's for the winner of the busiest logo award. It also looks like a slasher took to the letter 'A.'" – DM

"Not in iconography or meaning, but in style very much like Obama's." – SS

"I found myself trying to scrape off the little red smudge over the 'A,' and when it wouldn't come off, I realized it was part of the logo! It's kind of wimpy and says to me he doesn't throw enough solutions at the problem." – KG