By Fran Johnson
  1. Home
  2. Insights
  3. Article

Branding a political figurehead

Branding political parties - and in turn their figurehead - could be seen as one of the toughest jobs in the design world. There is so much at stake, time moves quickly in politics and producing visuals that 51% of the population can identify with is a near impossible task!

Within the last election the Conservative party took the approach to brand Theresa May rather than the party as a whole. An approach that ensures the messages retain clarity – focussing on the behaviour of one person is simpler than looking into the conduct of all MP’s – and controlling the message.

The figurehead

Largely due to the structure of their political system, but as much to do with their national psyche, the Americans take an approach to branding that places the politicians ability to relate to people or to drive change at the heart of any campaigning. Whilst we Brit’s think of our politicians as ‘the best of a bad bunch’ Americans seem to attach a considerably larger amount of hope to what a political figurehead can achieve.

One of the best articles I’ve read recently about how to brand a political figurehead came from Michael Bierut – the designer of Hillary Clinton’s #ImWithHer campaign. He speaks about the brand strategy, and utilising Raymond Loewy’s design maxim: ‘If something was familiar, make it surprising. If something was surprising, make it familiar.’ Clinton was a household name, so they needed to create a brand that surprised; flexible enough to be used by everyone and simple enough that it could be copied.

Bierut created a very solid brand – the sort that designers could admire and pundits could (eventually!) celebrate. But she lost, and not only did she loose – she lost to this:

Trump campaign political branding, the figurehead

On the other hand, Donald Trump’s graphics were easy to dismiss. They combined the design sensibility of the Home Shopping Network with the tone of a Nigerian scam email.

Michael Bierut

So, is design not important? Or worst still (for a design agency at least) does it hinder the main message – with the message becoming too polished and uniformed?

Unfortunately, I sometimes think the power of hindsight is the only way we know whether branding has been successful. The same strategy Clinton used, worked with Obama. The next US presidential nominee who replicates Trump’s approach will likely be unsuccessful.

The political branding that was called for during the Campaign was the grass roots design – user generated, passionate, individual responses to the corporate machine.

[At the Washington women’s march] And everywhere we looked, we could see pink, the knitted hats with cat ears that would become the defining image of the March. The next day, we found ourselves in a crowd that seemed to stretch for miles in every direction. A forest of homemade signs became a display of wit, imagination, and passion that instantly went viral on social media. None of them matched, and all of them were beautiful. There was only one element of consistency. Those homemade Pussyhatswhich began as a three-woman project in a Los Angeles knitting class and became a national cottage industry that produced more than a hundred thousand hats in a matter of weeks—were so ubiquitous that they turned every photograph of the throng into a sea of pink. There was no guidelines manual, no design direction. Instead, here was something thrilling: individual creativity in the service of collective solidarity.

Michael Bierut

Womens march in Washington

Whilst branding a political party might be a near impossible task – due to the audiences involved, successful campaigns have done one thing – strengthened the central message.


Images by Shannon Stapleton & Molly Riley

An impossible task?

Can you develop a brand that targets (at least) 51% of the population? Strong brands have defined audiences, strong campaigns identify with large swaths of the population - is political branding possible?

Fran Johnson - 12/04/2018
Branding a political figurehead

What can we learn about branding a political figurehead from the Clinton and Trump campaigns - the role of design and beyond.

Fran Johnson - 22/03/2018