Why Trump’s Branding Won Him the Country

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos once said, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

Branding had an unprecedented role in the 2016 election. Looking through this lens, we see why Trump was so successful in his campaign.

A section of a branding guide by Stylo for Double Knot.

Branding guidelines are used in graphic design to, well, keep a brand looking like a brand. Think of it like an owner’s manual on what the brand is and how it’s expressed.

At a glance, Trump’s brand is like every other politician’s. But look again, adjust the lens, and you’ll find much more to it. A breadcrumb trail reminding us that he’s not a politician; he’s not a Washington insider.

Following the trail, his brand is rather simple.

Take the logo.

It reflected his brand philosophy–fast, blunt and straight to the point. Throughout history, most politicians have used serif fonts for their logos to denote a sense of tradition and knowledge.  The use of a sans serif font (straight, plain letters) by Trump, played into the “outsider” character he portrayed. The businessman, the daredevil that cuts to the chase.

“They knew their demographics weren’t really going to care about that [design],” fourth-year graphic design major, Inbal Sella said.

Perhaps it was not a direct choice, but a subconscious decision. This quick, simple approach was on brand the whole time. The Republicans are known for cutting the fine arts, Trump proved this his first week in office. A mindset that proved prevalent in his campaign.

Sella made a point about how the majority of people in the design industry, especially the younger demographic, are liberal. It’s obvious how Trump couldn’t have reached to those people for support which raises the question: was it really a design choice? Or another example of making the best of what he had?

photo via wikimedia

On Nov. 8th 2016, District published a piece on advertising students watching the election night. These students had interesting insight into Trump’s persona. “He knew exactly what he was going for,” said Sam Schmidt, a second-year advertising major. 

Schmidt went on to explain how in running for the presidency all the candidates seem to be in the middle of things, but Trump was very quick to take a stance, often radical. And how from an advertising standpoint, it’s the ultimate goal: to grab your attention in a second.

Photo via Wikimedia, Author Gage Skidmore

The logo did just that, create an instant presence, a firm statement stamped heavily onto the podium.

Next, he painted it with red, white and blue. The often used imagery of the American flags, just one symbol repeated constantly, matched the simple rhetoric of his campaign.

Through a ridiculous amount of them, everyone knew Trump was America, America was Trump. A beautiful use of design principles as propaganda.

This kind of branding is one of the strongest: it is brief and clear with no room for doubt; he is patriotic. But it would be meaningless without an avid believer to deliver its message.

 

Photo via Voice of America

In this, his brand’s voice was as apparent as his patriotism. It sent his product, his brand, flying off the shelves like a 4K TV on Black Friday. Four key characteristics were able to meet the product demand:

1. Market the ‘outsider’ persona: “Drain the swamp.”

2. Utilize the simple and blunt style guides: “Build that wall.” “Crooked Hillary.”

3. Be authentic: Trump was asked to stop tweeting. He said no. His brand is the business man that does what he wants and doesn’t have to listen to anyone.

4. Be predictably unpredictable: At a rally in Des Moines, Trump said it best, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot people, and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

But if there’s one thing Trump’s brand did better than any other, it was ‘knowing thy demographic.’

“Their slogan itself, ‘Make America great again,’ wasn’t exactly a very big metaphor for anything. It’s very blunt and to the point, like his campaign.” said Sella. His brand played its demographic. Fine tuning the strings on the educational background and age of its supporters, it made its message simple, blunt and easy to understand, easy to rally and chant. 

Finally, the true success of any brand is making it consistent across all platforms; TV, print, writing and having it still be instantly recognizable. In this, Trump was brilliant.

Simple look. Simple message. Simple man.

 

Photo via HillaryClinton.com

 

 

“I think Hillary’s brand was beautiful. It was very modern and clean.” Armstrong said. With top-notch, industry leader in logo design, Michael Bierut behind the logo it seems like Clinton’s brand was poised to conquer.

Yet it flopped. Resoundingly poor reviews from across the internet and social media plagued the brand.

Why? It had the traditional red, white and blue. The same choice as Trump to use a modern sans serif font, powerfully bold. But it seems these decisions were a double edged blade. Where Trump’s logo exudes power and stability, Clinton’s enhances all of her negative reviews. Her logo tries to speak for her, holding in it conceptual ideas on moving towards progress and following ‘her’ into the future she can create. Trump speaks for himself. His logo is just a logo.

Hers involves much more thought and analysis than his. Same with her slogan, Sella aptly described, “Her slogan, “Stronger Together,” is more of a metaphor.”

Clinton went for many demographics, one being the intelligent, thoughtful liberal trope. Often interested in the arts and world of design, this target seemed perfect for more modern branding. The result: the popular design of a logo system. This is basically a logo that can be adapted for different situations but is still instantly recognizable. For Clinton, this was meant to showcase her brand’s philosophy: progress, adaptability and visibility.

“We look at the Clinton campaign and it was all based on geometry. It was very intentional,” said Sella. 

 

Photo examples of logo systems; left: Melbourne city’s logo system, center: Clinton’s logo system and right: Clinton’s system in use. Photos via Underconsideration and Wikimedia.

 

The duality of the mark was meant to mirror Clinton’s own political strategy, that is, how she listens. In a Vox article by Ezra Klein, “Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns… Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.” As Washington Monthly stated, “Hillary Clinton Listens in Order to Build Coalitions.” It seems this wasn’t able to come through in her brand.

But quirky, stylized vector shapes seemed to try and grasp at any reason to insert herself rather than seem genuinely interested. Unfortunately, photo inserts with a transparent arrow didn’t convey the transparency her brand was about either. Thus the brand was coming across shallow.

“I think that [her brand] wasn’t warm and that added points against her unfortunately. It was, but not in the way traditional people wanted,” said Armstrong.

Her brand was the friendly politician, one everyone knew was trying too hard to be liked.

 

 

twitter screenshot of user @intergalacticq

 

Does this first use of a logo system in politics actually lose strength? Hinder rather than help?

The concept that the H can be changed into what comes next or what is relevant is damaging. Instead of showing how she can adapt and change to meet the needs of the future, of her country, it highlights her faults: Inconsistent, pandering, self-serving.

Her campaign made her look like she didn’t understand the online medium. What they intended to be taken as “righteous” adaptability was seen as insincere and manipulative. By using social issues as props for her logos, she trivialized them. Unlike Trump, her brand relied on visuals to succeed.

 

This issue came across often, leaving Clinton unable to find a brand voice that meant something to people.

She seemed to have holes in her brand at every turn.

 

One of the only times she came across authentic was with the “I’m with Her” adverts. She set herself apart from him, as a woman and a Clinton. As Brandfolder put it, “American’s would be electing just ‘her,’ and not ‘him’ or ‘them [Clintons].’” Highlighting her gender, her positions, and her campaign.  

photo via brandfolder.com

 

“That said, a logo won’t win or lose a campaign — the candidate will. Trump is a horrible human being, and the best logo in the world — no, universe — couldn’t change that,” said Jesse Reed, co-designer of Clinton’s logo, said in an interview with Slate.

And that’s true, a logo, a brand isn’t going to win an election. Just like an apple on my phone isn’t why I have an iPhone… or is it?