The launch of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was always going to ignite a media furor. What the campaign team likely hadn’t anticipated however, was for so much of that attention to focus on a relatively small part of the campaign: the logo.
Following Clinton’s announcement of her second presidential run via a two-minute video circulated on social media on Sunday, individuals took to Twitter in droves to offer critiques of the campaign’s new logo, along with a host of comparisons, most of them unfavorable. From the FedEx logo to a highway hospital sign — even WikiLeaks chimed in to claim the Clinton campaign had “stolen” their logo — people saw echoes of a variety of other identities. But the one that no one saw may be most important: Hillary 2008.
“Already you see candidates like Marco Rubio attempting to paint Hillary as last century’s candidate,” says Bernd Schmitt, the Robert D. Calkins Professor of International Business at Columbia Business School and Faculty Director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership. “For this campaign she needs to differentiate herself not only from the other candidates, but also from her own previous run.” Clinton’s 2016 identity is a far cry from her more conservative 2008 identity, which was dominated by a classic serif typeface, New Baskerville—a slightly updated version of a typeface favored, notably, by Benjamin Franklin.
For 2016 she’s paired up with Michael Beirut of Pentagram — a highly regarded designer who has worked on the identities of several major brands, including Saks Fifth Avenue, United Airlines, and Columbia Business School. While she may be distancing herself from Hillary ’08, there are clear resonances in the simple geometric mark of the new gold standard in campaign design: Obama 2008’s rising sun ensconced in the perfectly round “o” of the now iconic Gotham typeface. The mark also sets her apart from the early Republican declarers, including Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, both of whom have opted for wordmarks capped by a torch. “The torch is very strongly associated with statesmanship and patriotism,” Schmitt notes, “but much of that visual language has been used heavily before, making it a more conservative choice.”
Assessing the mark itself, Schmitt says: “When you're a public persona, you’re thought of as a brand. So the central question is: is it appropriate for her personality?” There will be questions around the simplicity of the mark and whether it reads as appropriately professional, as well as the color scheme, given the strong political associations of red and blue in the United States. On the latter count, many appear to be reading the right-pointing red arrow as indicating a desire to reach out to the right, rather than the simple message of progress that fueled Obama’s 2008 campaign.
As the first female candidate likely to win a major party’s presidential nomination — and possibly the White House — Schmitt adds that Clinton’s new angular, geometric mark is particularly interesting with respect to gender. “Research shows that people perceive angularity as more masculine, and roundness as feminine.” Taken together the mark and her choice of typography – a soft, rounded geometric sans serif set primarily in lower case, as opposed to Obama’s authoritative all caps – may represent an attempt to strike a critical balance between tough and approachable.
On both sides, the debate over the logo is deeply personal. “Whether people like it or not likely has a lot to do with whether or not they like her. Logos aren't perceived objectively; they’re filtered through the attitudes that people hold about brands — or, in this case, candidates.”
Much of the attention directed at the Clinton campaign’s identity may derive from the timing of her announcement. “Think of it like a movie,” Schmitt says. “The long delay waiting for Hillary's campaign has created suspense, and now that it’s finally here, people are scrutinizing every detail.” The debate itself may offer a boost to the campaign, attracting additional attention in the critical early days.
Schmitt’s advice to the campaign team is to hold the course. “We know from research that people who don't like something are the people who are most likely to go through the effort to publicly comment on it. We don't actually know whether the general public dislikes it.” Even those who see the mark as a misstep for Hillary are likely to soon forget about it as the news cycle moves on. “Unless something emerges later for which the logo can be seen as early evidence of mistakes, people will move on. The best strategy is probably not to comment on it at all.”
Ultimately, Schmitt says, “it's just a logo. As I discussed with my students yesterday, a logo is only a small part of a brand. Everything the candidates do is critical to the brand. The way they speak, their demeanor, the words they use, the people they associate with, these are just as important if not more so.” He continues: “If the consumer — the citizen, the voter — if they look at this as a simple, powerful message about moving forward, then it will work. But if it's perceived as ‘simplistic’ rather than ‘simple,’ if the message of moving forward isn’t enough or doesn’t resonate with voters, it won’t work.”
About the researcher
Professor Schmitt researches, teaches, and advises corporations on branding, innovation, creative strategy, and customer experience management. Schmitt's books include (among others)