The firestorm of criticism and controversy struck fast and loud. Benghazi? Emailgate? No, branding.
The fact that the public now seizes upon a logo design as the central response to a political campaign launch just goes to show how sophisticated we’ve become about media communications. It’s also something everyone can weigh in on and have some fun with, unlike policy issues or ideology. The level of passion and even vitriol around Clinton’s new campaign logo may have been something of a surprise, but I daresay the campaign is not complaining. For as much as they may have wanted its message to resonate more than its identity design in the campaign announcement video, people are talking. A lot. And not about Hillary’s private email server.
Generating media buzz (and virtually burying Marco Rubio’s announcement in the process) is only part of what the Clinton campaign is achieving so far. Make no mistake: This campaign’s communications organization is already proving itself to be extremely savvy, with some clear competence in successful persuasion methodology. This stuff doesn’t just happen.
In his Inc. article defending the logo design, Edward Cox compiles opinion from branding consultants who point out various attributes being evoked, from Clinton’s “forceful personality style” to the convenient way the logo is likely to function across multiple media channels, sizes and formats. Ashleigh Hansberger of the Motto agency comes close to the mark when he interprets the right-pointing-arrow as “the campaign moving forward.” But it’s undoubtedly meant to suggest more than that. It’s about more than just the campaign, and about more than just momentum.
For branding in general, and identity design in particular, success depends on a great deal more than just a weekend and a whim, Marissa Mayer notwithstanding. When produced by intelligent, experienced shops like Pentagram, visual design decisions are explicitly mapped to strategic imperatives drawn from extensive, often voluminous, research. The trick is not only to create a visual expression of some often esoteric ideas, but also make it look both fresh and inevitable, like it wasn’t the result of copious data mining. Whether or not Pentagram achieved this for its Democratic campaign clients I’ll leave for others to decide, but what is obvious to those of us who traffic in the techniques of influence and persuasion is that Hillary’s people are evidencing some very definite decisions about the emotional triggers they are looking to activate in the amygdala-driven brains of the voting public.
The evidence is not exactly subtle. But it’s absolutely on-point.
The video itself delivers almost entirely on a powerful emotional driver that can be fairly easy to accomplish in direct relationships, but which is devilishly challenging to achieve in media communications: The Friendship Trigger. This is the foundational emotional trigger, the one without which all the other triggers are much less reliable in their potential to persuade. The core of this trigger is sameness, wherein despite all superficial differences, we agree with one another on some fundamental parallels in our nature; about shared experiences or common values.
Clinton’s announcement video delivers on this emotional trigger almost exclusively. And does so in a uniquely effective way. The method conventionally used in political advertising to evoke the (usually absurd) idea that “I’m just like you” is to show the candidate interacting with the kinds of people with whom they want to be identified. This almost never works to activate the Friendship Trigger because most of these recorded events only serve to make the candidate look even more unusual and set-apart. They’re so conspicuously in the spotlight, so obviously the center of attention even as they’re trying to be “one of the folks.” Who exactly is this similar to except other candidates and celebrities? The other problem with look-at-me-I’m-among-the-people optics is that we, as viewers, are observers, not participants.
Clinton’s 2015 campaign announcement video avoids both of these pitfalls by having the candidate herself alone, in a casual sidewalk setting, speaking directly to us, but echoing a series of similar workaday intentions by regular Americans to move, grow, change, connect, and succeed. The candidate is not merely among us. She is one of us. Or so the campaign hopes we’ll believe.
In her 2008 campaign video – imperiously poised in what appears to be a White House room, check-boxing her credentials – Mrs. Clinton launched her campaign not with the Friendship Trigger but with the Authority Trigger. It backfired (as the Authority Trigger is inclined to do if not properly timed), and by the time she regained a hard-won standing as relatable, it was too late. The momentum had turned decisively in favor of her opponent. Triggers matter.
Now back to the logo. That it’s all about forward is evident even to a child. That it’s so massively bold and unequivocal, without nuance even, has been the source of a lot of the criticism. But I would suggest that the Clinton campaign is being ham-handed like a fox. The forward or future concept addresses what is almost certainly the single biggest liability that Mrs. Clinton faces in her bid for the presidency: that she represents the past. When evaluating the vast mix of elements that combine to create a brand, a hierarchy must be created, and in many cases – certainly in the case of a political campaign in the age of information and social media – the identity design, the logo mark, sits atop the messaging priority pyramid because of its ubiquitous visibility… It will. Be. Everywhere.
The Clinton campaign has chosen forward to the future as their brand essence not just because it’s a tried-and-true political campaign concept, but because it evokes the sharpest (check out how sharp those arrow points are) possible contrast to what is likely to be her greatest political challenge. Hillary launched her campaign with the Friendship Trigger, but her identity design is all about the Contrast Trigger.