Expertinent: Why the Obama "Brand" Is Working

Let's be honest. Barack Obama is not on the verge of clinching the Democratic nomination because of his policy positions--whatever his most evangelical supporters might tell you. If policy was all that mattered this year, Hillary Clinton would've won five or six of the last 11 contests instead of losing them all. When it comes to specifics, there's simply not that much space between the candidates.

Obama's success owes a lot, of course, to his message--the promise to pass Democratic policies by rallying a "coalition for change." But watching Obamamania over the past few weeks, I've become convinced that there's something more subtle at work, too. It's not just the message and the man and the speeches that are swaying Democratic voters--though they are. It's the way the campaign has folded the man and the message and the speeches into a systemic branding effort. Reinforced with a coherent, comprehensive program of fonts, logos, slogans and web design, Obama is the first presidential candidate to be marketed like a high-end consumer brand.* And for folks who don't necessarily need Democratic social programs--upscale voters, young people--I suspect that the novel comfort of that brand affiliation contributes (however subconsciously) to his appeal.

Seeking expert opinion, I tested my hypothesis on leading graphic designer and critic Michael Bierut, who was kind enough to dissect Obama's unprecedented branding campaign--and show me how it's helping his candidacy. Excerpts:

(*UPDATE: A reader points out that "Reagan had one hell of a marketing strategy." No doubt. Every presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1968 (at least) was actively "marketed" to the American public--I'm not denying that. The point I'm trying to make is that Obama's marketing is much more cohesive and comprehensive than anything we've seen before, involving fonts, logos and web design in a way that transcends the mere appropriation of commercial tactics to achieve the sort of seamless brand identity that the most up-to-date companies strive for. Apologies for the misunderstanding. I definitely could have been clearer.)

What are the elements of the Obama brand?
To start, he has this way of writing Obama in upper and lowercase in a serif font and juxtaposing it with that "O" symbol he has--the blue ring with red and white stripes disappearing into it, making the white form inside the blue look like what I suppose is meant to be a rising sun. [See photo above]

That's his "logo," right?
Right. A lot of times when he's at a podium what you'll see is, centered right beneath him, at the very top of the blue field that usually says something like "Change You Can Believe In," it'll be just that little symbol, functioning in the same way the Nike swoosh does. People look at that and know what it means, even though it's just an "O" with some stripes in it.

Has any other campaign ever "pulled a Nike"?
Well, Bush did that the last time around with the letter "W," to some degree. You would see somebody with the letter "W" on a bumper sticker, and it would kind of work that way. But Obama has gotten there much quicker and a little more gracefully, if you ask me.

How else is Obama's design different than what has come before--or what rival campaigns are doing?
He's the first candidate, actually, who's had a coherent, top-to-bottom, 360-degree system at work. Whereas, I think it's more more common for politicians to have a bumper-sticker symbol that they just stick on everything and hope that that will carry the day.

The thing that sort of flabbergasts me as a professional graphic designer is that, somewhere along the way, they decided that all their graphics would basically be done in the same typeface, which is this typeface called Gotham. [See "Change We Can Believe In" sign, above] If you look at one of his rallies, every single non-handmade sign is in that font. Every single one of them. And they're all perfectly spaced and perfectly arranged. Trust me. I've done graphics for events --and I know what it takes to have rally after rally without someone saying, "Oh, we ran out of signs, let's do a batch in Arial." It just doesn't seem to happen. There's an absolute level of control that I have trouble achieving with my corporate clients.

Then if you go to the Web site, it's all reflected there too--all the same elements showing up in this clean, smooth, elegant way. It all ties together really, really beautifully as a system.

Is Obama's stuff on the level with the best commercial brand design?
I think it's just as good or better. I have sophisticated clients who pay me and other people well to try to keep them on the straight and narrow, and they have trouble getting everything set in the same typeface. And he seems to be able to do it in Cleveland and Cincinnati and Houston and San Antonio. Every time you look, all those signs are perfect. Graphic designers like me don't understand how it's happening. It's unprecedented and inconceivable to us. The people in the know are flabbergasted.

What does that say about his campaign?
My feeling, in my own narrow sphere as a professional graphic designer, echoes a little bit what Frank Rich wrote in his column on Sunday, where he was talking about Hillary Clinton's argument that Obama doesn't have the experience to run the country properly, and how you only needed to look at how her own campaign has been managed to see the flaw in that argument. I sort of see the same thing. I'm not sure that the commander-in-chief proves his mettle by getting everyone at his rallies to set their signs in the same typeface, but as someone who knows how hard that is, I'm very impressed.

The specific choices are also made in really good taste and I'd say to certain degree they also philosophically align with what his position is.

What do you see as the "philosophical implications," to use a highfalutin phrase, of Obama's design choices?
There are a couple of levels. There's the close-in parlor game you can play about what all these typefaces actually mean. Gotham was a typeface designed originally for GQ magazine, so it's a sleek, purposefully not fancy, very straightforward, plainspoken font, but done with a great deal of elegance and taste--and drawn from very American sources, by the way. Unlike other sans serif typefaces, it's not German, it's not French, it's not Swiss. It's very American. The serif font that he often uses to write Obama is delicate and nuanced and almost, not feminine exactly, but it's very literary-looking. It looks very conversational and pleasant, as opposed to strident and yelling. It's a persuasive-looking font, I would say. But that's putting these things on couches and pretending they have personalities.

Right. It's sort of hard to imagine in a voter in Cleveland (or a Newsweek political blogger from New York, for that matter) interacting with Obama's design on that level. How does it affect those of us who aren't graphic designers?
Well, I'm teaching this class at the Yale School of Management, and we were just talking about brand management and politics--exactly this thing before we got on the phone. And one of the things that came up in the conversation is, if you think about it, the challenge for someone named Barack Hussein Obama is that he's such an unprecedented figure in American politics--so much so that everything he's trying to do is, in a way, trying to make him look smoother and more normal. Someone said, "Well, why shouldn't he have revolutionary looking graphics--graphics that make him look like grassroots, like an outsider? Things drawn by hand, things that look forceful and avant-garde." But I think he's using design in a way to make him look as normal, as comfortable, as inevitable as a brand can look in American life. Those are really deliberate, interesting choices. Whether or not a sans serif font like Gotham looks more "American" than a Swiss font like Helvetica, that's in our imaginations to a certain degree. I think it's much more incontrovertible that he's actually using the seamlessness of this branding to convey a candidacy that's not a dangerous, revolutionary, risk-everything proposition--but as something that is well-managed and has everything under control.

How much have brands like Target or Apple or Volkswagen--these high-design, but essentially accessible brands--paved the way Obama?
I think they're all very much of a kind. I would name those three brands as ones that share a lot with the way this candidate is presenting himself. They're meant to look transparent, open, accessible and democratic to a certain degree. Non-intimidating. You don't feel that this stuff is all being hatched in corporate boardrooms with ad agencies and marketing experts at the table. They all sort of look as if people like you are talking to people like you. Of course, there's a lot of forethought put into all this stuff. But in the end, being able to project an identity that people are willing to credit with being authentic is a hard thing to do. But those brands, and the Obama brand, are managing to do it.

With all three of those brands, though, design has in some sense become a form of content. I wonder if something like that is happening with Obama--that people find the seamlessness of his brand compelling and comforting, and they gravitate to him because of it, as opposed to any specific policy differences with Clinton. I'm wondering if you see that reflected in Obama the same way you do in, say, Target or Apple vs. Wal-Mart or Dell?
Oh yeah. There is a difference in the way the experience is delivered between Wal-Mart and Target. Target is gambling on the proposition that people want something that's got more style, that seems more accessible, that's less strident, that's less one-dimensional, that offers a higher comfort level--and they're willing to go with it. There are interesting policy distinctions that you can make between the Democrats and the Republicans and even between Hillary and Obama. But as has been said, the differences are not so pronounced that you're going to be driven inexorably to one over the other. So I think that the affiliation with a brand seems to be transcending these other things. For good or for ill, that seems to be the way the race is playing out this year.

What about Hillary?
She's been morphing her Web site* specifically to look like his all the time, so that seems obvious. McCain, to his credit, looks all the more militaristic and blunt and harsh in a way, so I appreciate him sticking to the authenticity.

Do you think there's a risk that such a strong reliance on branding and design encourages the perception that Obama is all style and no substance?
There's always that risk, particularly in America--the suspicion that if something looks good, it can't possibly work. If someone's really beautiful, they can't be smart. I don't know why. It's like, in Italy, they don't seem to have that problem, oddly enough. A lot of that had to do with the fact that good-looking, well-designed stuff used to cost a lot -- it used to be a class divider. But now, with the brands you were mentioning, with Target, with Apple, they've become much more democratic and egalitarian in terms of access. Certainly, he's been attacked for being good-looking with no substance. But that's what you would do if you were losing to this guy.

*Fixed the link. Trust me, there's no conspiracy here. Just my inadequate technical abilities.