Bernie, Hillary, and the Authenticity Gap: A Case Study in Campaign Branding

Much has been written about the contrasts between the two Democratic candidates for president, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. However, scarcely anything has been written exploring the visual optics of these campaigns — how they portray each candidate, and, by extension, how they reflect the core perceptions and principles of each candidate.

Traditionally, when campaign branding is covered by the news media, the entire critique consists of one or two expert designers who weigh in with a few random (usually snarky) comments on the aesthetic qualities of each campaigns’ respective logos, as if this one piece accurately measures the vitality and effectiveness of a campaign’s overall visual language. Politico, CNN, Bloomberg, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Vanity Fair have done this. Even design-centric outlets such as Print Magazine have done their own half-hearted version of this. What about the rest of the identity system? What about its merchandise, its language, its tone, the video ads and other cross-platform media it puts out? What about the visuals made by outside parties inspired by their candidate? Why aren’t these all factored in?

After Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster— which did not come from any campaign — became the most memorable image of the 2008 election, an appetite for a more rigorous, in-depth look at campaigns and visual optics has emerged.

Let’s start by looking into these campaign identities.

When the identity for the Hillary campaign was introduced, it was scrutinized similar to that of a large brand’s rebranding — it was covered voraciously in the media, and everyone had an opinion. The identity was reportedly developed by Michael Bierut, partner at the New York-based design firm Pentagram (for all non-designers out there, he is one of the most widely recognized and celebrated designers of his time). This point is key, as it perfectly exemplifies the Clinton camp’s approach to their entire campaign: in choosing Bierut and Pentagram, she chose someone who was arguably the most noblesse, most cautious, most conventional designer you could think of to do the job.

As a result, her branding reflects this. The designer in me thinks it’s quite brilliant. The use of “Hillary” plays a dual role in reinforcing her personality as a one-name superstar while detaching herself from the rest of the Clinton brand. It’s modern and bold, which builds upon the successes of the Obama “O” logo. It’s aesthetically and compositionally on point. And, as the campaign has played out, it’s proven useful as a flexible identity system (a.k.a. “logo as container”) that’s been popularized in recent years, with the ability to be customized, morph and change to suit the need. That’s the difference between simply a logo and a whole identity/branding system, and that’s why Mr. Bierut and his team, who come from a traditional graphic design school of thought, excelled in building this system. It is so well thought out, and meticulously rolled out across her campaign messaging — from the identity application to the social media videos and images, to the campaign merchandise and printed matter — it’s out of a dream playbook in the annals of graphic design. It’s “graphic designer’s graphic design.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see the campaign winning multiple design awards for its branding next year.

Contrast that with the identity of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. The Sanders’ campaign identity was developed by Wide Eye Creative, lead by Ben Ostrower as their partner and creative director. Based on their site, Wide Eye Creative is a DC-based firm that specializes in communication for Democratic candidates, organizations, and causes. Its design aesthetic is clean, but rather expected in this realm — there’s nothing considerably memorable about it. The “Bernie” logo itself isn’t particularly remarkable or breaking new ground, though it does portray the candidate accurately. The use of the first name, and the name itself, “Bernie,” is inherently friendly and memorable; how many people named Bernie do you know? The choice of the Jubliat typeface, reminiscent of Clarendon, looks warm, affable, and is certainly out of the mainstream compared to most campaign branding. The lighter blue color is bold and positive, not staid or conservative like a darker blue would have been. Is the logo memorable or inspiring? Not so much. It’s a bit of an afterthought, but I would argue it’s doing its job perfectly — it doesn’t get in the away of the candidate and his message, which frankly, is not about him.

While Hillary’s visual campaign is inarguably successful by all traditional design principles, it’s also calculated, expected, and contrived. It reinforces the perception of establishment status, which is one of the main criticisms of her as a candidate. One of the consequences of a campaign so tightly controlled is the campaign feels so tightly controlled. This is best explained by a Sanders supporter, Aled Lewis, who observes:

One of the things that really stood out for me at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner was the signs, banners and t-shirts worn and displayed by Bernie supporters. In stark contrast to the fresh-out-the-box merchandise that was shipped in by the Hillary campaign. They looked like they were in uniforms. The official signs, the gimmicky light-sticks. It looked more like a product launch than a group of supporters.

From top left: Clinton supporters at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa (photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters), below: Clinton campaign kickoff rally at Roosevelt Island, NYC (photo: John Moore/Getty), right: camplaign merchandise from
Left: apparel from various merchants including RayGun, Grant Knits, Ben Clark, top right: photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images, bottom: photo: Prince Williams/Getty Images

Perhaps this is why the tone of Hillary’s rallies have been described as “dutiful” while Bernie’s rallies have been described as “passionate.” Perhaps this is why her campaign can’t shake the underlying perception that its youth outreach effort is a series of calculated branding tactics that “speak their language” in order to woo them over. Her campaign merchandise, while well-executed, feels more like the mass-market merchandise an Urban Outfitters would produce in an effort to imitate the look of an upstart indie fashion label. The location choice of Brooklyn for Clinton’s national headquarters was yet another example of “I’m hip; I’m in Brooklyn.”

In contrast, Bernie’s branding isn’t the model by any traditional design standards. Quite the contrary — his branding takes a back seat to the excitement his campaign has created.

Take the two most popular hashtags associated with each campaign. #FeeltheBern, used by supporters of Bernie Sanders, was vaunted into the 2016 election lexicon last year not by the Sanders’ campaign, but by an outside volunteer group supporting his candidacy. It quickly spread like wildfire over social media, solidifying Bernie’s supporters with a catchy, memorable phrase. In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s most popular hashtag for her supporters, #ImWithHer, is a social marketing campaign manufactured by the Clinton camp, rolled out when actor and writer Lena Dunham joined the campaign as a surrogate. This is yet another example of the clear contrast between the two campaigns — Bernie’s campaign has harnessed the enthusiasm of the supporters who are, in turn, shaping his message, while Hillary’s top-down campaign messaging dictates to their voter base that this election is about her — the celebrity, the icon — not them.

Artwork from “The Art of a Political Revolution”: Cody Hudson, Jackson Tupper, KozyNDan, Byron O’neil, Ellen Voorheis, photo: Mike Selsk/Bernie Sanders 2016

Furthermore, the Sanders campaign has been successfully harnessing the contributions of his supporters throughout this election season. He has captivated the artists’ hearts and minds, much in the same way that Obama captivated the artists and makers in 2008. “The Art of a Political Revolution,” an exhibition that started in L.A. and is currently touring throughout the U.S., features work from over 35 different independent artists across the country. The exhibition was a collaboration between the Sanders campaign and HVW8 Gallery, and is featured on their campaign website. Conversely, the Clinton campaign has partnered with fashion designers such as Tory Burch and Marc Jacobs, who designed t-shirt graphics for her official campaign shop. An important class distinction to note here is the difference between collaborating with relatively unknown artists, and collaborating with elite fashion designers.

To be fair, there are independent companies creating apparel inspired by the Clinton campaign. However, the most popular ones, such as Print Liberation and Look Human, are selling apparel for both candidates. In doing so, they appear to be more opportunistic than impassioned.

Left: posters designed by Aled Lewis, right: t-shirt by Shepard Fairey/Bernie Sanders 2016, Jumpman by Aled Lewis, bottom: still from “Together” by HUMAN

There are many more examples of Bernie inspiring creative expression. The techie platform Reddit, which has been a hotbed of Sanders’ support, initiated a competition in search of a new “Hope” poster for 2016. Designer Aled Lewis won the competition with his “Not Me Us” poster. “Not Me Us” has been a response to the Hillary’s “I’m With Her” slogan, focusing on the collective over the individual. The Sanders’ campaign liked it so much that they tied it into their own #AmericaTogether social media campaign and commissioned Lewis to create versions of his poster in 13 other languages. Several versions of a Bernie “icon” have been popping up all over the internet, another fan-made visual which features Bernie’s signature disheveled hair and glasses. The Captured Project is a book that features the tragic irony of “people in prison drawing people who should be.” It consists of portraits of CEOs whose companies committed some of the most egregious crimes against the environment and the economy and yet were never held accountable; portraits which were created by inmates serving time for much lesser offenses. The book’s authors are donating all of the proceeds from book sales to the Sanders’ campaign (there is currently a waitlist). Prints of Darkness, started by Vermonters Eric Olsen and Andrew Lakata in early fall of 2015, is selling a variety of tees inspired by classic punk, metal, and hip-hop music; a few examples include “Bernie Brains,” “Run DNC,” and “Master of Reality.” All profits of the sales are donated directly to the Sanders’ campaign. A visually striking, emotionally touching video in support of Sanders was made by (you guessed it) an independent design firm not affiliated with the campaign. “Together,” a video by New York-based creative agency HUMAN, has nearly 3 million views on Vimeo. And in what might be seen as the most direct echo of 2008 into 2016, Shepard Fairey himself endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, and created a t-shirt which is prominently featured in the campaign’s official store.

Why does all of this matter? Quite simply, it demonstrates the authenticity gap between the candidates. Hillary’s visual campaign is carefully constructed, disciplined, and scripted. But, as any person who’s savvy enough to sniff out marketing campaigns knows, you can’t script a movement. They don’t come down from on high. As she moves more to the left, echoing Bernie’s calls for a revolution, the centerpiece of her campaign remains the candidate herself: “Brand Hillary.” A campaign that sells the candidate’s signature as swag is a campaign that is, without question, selling its candidate as a brand. These optics, combined with the celebrity endorsements and the establishment status, completely contradict the populist movement-building message she is now attempting to co-opt as her own.

Top row: Lisa Werner, Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images, bottom: Sanders’ supporters march at the University of Minnesota on Jan 30, 2016 (photo: Ben Gross / The UpTake/Flickr), Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has famously stated that his campaign is about a “political revolution” that “will bring tens of millions of our people together” from all disparate walks of life. By doing so, he is trying to send a message that his campaign is larger than him — a message that appears to be resonating with those disaffected by politics as usual, as demonstrated in the polls. The corresponding visual optics, created from both inside and outside of the campaign, further reinforce (rather than contradict) the idea that the Sanders’ campaign is building a larger movement. It builds from the bottom up, which means it’s messy, it’s spontaneous, it’s reactive, it’s organic, it’s unscripted. It isn’t clean and tidy. It isn’t “good design.” But that’s what makes it, in a word, authentic.

Political and visual enthusiast. Art director, designer, and educator, based in Washington, DC.

Political and visual enthusiast. Art director, designer, and educator, based in Washington, DC.