In a field of two dozen Democratic candidates for president, there’s naturally going to be a single-issue candidate or two. Until this week, one of them was Washington Governor Jay Inslee, running on solving the climate crisis.
Inslee withdrew from the race this week, saying on MSNBC that it was clear he wasn’t “going to be carrying the ball.” But, Inslee laid out a pathway to a carbon-neutral America, which included a radical rethinking of everything from the nation’s infrastructure (say hello to electric cars and charging stations everywhere) to buildings (retrofitting 4% of the nation’s structures per year to make them energy efficient) and supply chains (think sustainable, hyperlocal production).
Though brief, his candidacy showed what it looks like to compete in a crowded field of Democrats in the 2020 presidential primary. Inslee’s campaign—and overall brand—proved his commitment to addressing climate change, a singe issue that won’t be tested with voters, but one that could land him a spot as a leader and consultant in the space.
A spokesperson for the Inslee campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about his brand strategy. Inslee announced on Thursday his plans to run for a third term as governor of Washington.
Campaign logo and slogan
Inslee’s logo got away from the standard red, white and blue patriotism of most 21st-century candidates—and other Democrats vying for the presidency in 2020. Instead, what appeared to be a globe topped his name with the slogan “Our Moment” below it.
“If you saw it by itself, you would never know it’s for a political candidate. The good news is that once you know what his platform is, you see what he’s trying to do,” said Gabe Miller, president of Americas for brand consulting firm Landor. In a quick poll of his office, Miller found that half of his co-workers thought the logo represented a pharmaceutical brand like Pfizer or Viagra.
Unlike Miller, Pamela Webber, chief operating officer of 99designs, an Australian platform for freelance graphic designers, thought his logo made Inslee’s brand clear. “It’s pretty obvious that it communicates his strong stance on climate change,” Webber said, adding that the green gradient moving to the blue could “connote, ‘I am the climate change candidate, and I’m going to bring green practices to America.”
After President Barack Obama successfully ran on slogans like “Change We Need” and “Hope,” Webber thought Inslee might be softening the language around climate change to help voters identify with a movement, rather than touching on the “extreme” of the climate crisis. The logo and website can be used as tools, Webber said, to appeal to a broader American audience.
But, for Miller, the slogan fell flat. To him, the slogan didn’t communicate the same sense of urgency as Inslee’s platform to make America carbon neutral. “There’s no call to action,” Miller said. “Taken by itself, it conveys absolutely nothing about, in his words, the climate crisis or the strong need to [stop] climate change.”
There might be a reason for that, according to Brian Sheehan, professor of advertising at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “Maybe he doesn’t want to sound like the roof is on fire, even though the roof is on fire,” Sheehan said. “But that may not be what the electorate wants to hear.”
Did Inslee brand himself effectively?
According to all three branding experts: yes. They agreed Inslee has set himself up for a future where he’s the go-to politician for solving the climate crisis, which is now the most important issue among registered Democrats, according to a recent poll from CNN.
So where does he go from here? Sheehan said it’s a “no-brainer” that Inslee will be named to a cabinet or other prominent position “because he’s labeled himself as the kind of expert and leader” in addressing climate change.
And if Inslee doesn’t want to run on just one issue in the future, Webber argued he’s setting himself up to broaden his platform like another 2020 hopeful, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who made a name for herself a decade ago cracking down on financial institutions and improving consumer protections during the last recession. Now, Warren has a fully formed progressive platform that has catapulted her toward the top of the polls, Webber said.
“The single-issue candidates are probably looking at the long haul here and seeing a single issue is an effective way to build a name for yourself,” he said.
Similarly, Miller thinks Inslee is setting himself up for “some other type of office where he’s known for that issue. That can be a smart strategy, so he’s playing the long game.”