How Politicians Use Branding to Influence You

by Brian James Rawson
November 7, 2022

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Listen to the episode above. Read the transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Owl Street Studio podcast, where we talk about how marketing and design affect the unexpected areas of our lives.

Branding Finally, Actually Defined

A word that a lot of people know, but don't really understand or have a difficult time pinning down is “branding” and “brand.” The word used to be a niche jargon term in the industry. But now it's jumped to being in the pop psyche. You'll see characters on sitcoms joke ironically that they need to fix “their brand” or “stay on brand” or “that's not my brand,” but what does brand and branding even mean?

It's been on my mind a lot recently, with the political season that we're in. Right now, the midterm elections are just happening, and I've seen a lot (I mean, a lot) of political ads and posters and campaigns and rhetoric and on and on and on. And something else that I don't think a lot of people understand is that politics use brand and branding all the time. And the way they use branding, really, really affects how you decide to vote. But first to see that connection, let's pan back and define what is branding.

The easiest way to define “brand” is if you swap the word “brand” for “reputation.” Branding, just like reputation, is all the thoughts and feelings, all the memories, impressions, beliefs, concepts and perceptions that people have about you - especially when they think about you. When they say your name and picture you to get all of these things, all of these feelings that come up to the surface. But where reputation comes more organically and naturally, branding is like reputation but highly intentional and strategic. With branding, you use verbal and visual information to craft the reputation and persona that you want. And you use verbal and visual information to create the impression in people that you want.

Branding is What You See

It's easy to see visual information and verbal information in regular products and brands when you walk through the grocery store. Visual information is things like color palettes and the logo. Verbal information is things like the headlines and the caption. But how does that connect to politics? Well, every single time a politician steps on the stage or comes on your screen, they're using branding, specifically personal branding - where they're using the skills and strategies of regular branding but applying it to an individual instead of to a generic product.

So every time a person walks on that stage and starts telling you their rhetoric, they cast a specific set of visual information. When someone walks on the stage, it matters if their shirt sleeves are rolled up or down, if they're wearing a suit or jeans, if their tie’s a Half Windsor or a Double Knot or how their hair’s combed or how it's not combed. And that's not to mention all the nonverbal information that they present. It matters if they slouch, if they cast their shoulders back, if they lean forward, if they lean back. All these tiny, tiny details come together to give you a visual impression and an idea about this person.

Branding is What You Hear

And then every time they open their mouth, they're giving you verbal information. And it's not just what they say, it's not just the bullet points and the talking points that they recite, but it's how they say it. Do they speak fast or slow? Loud or soft? What kind of words do they use? $5 Words? $2 Words? What words do they not use?

All of these things build upon each other, almost like a coral reef that builds up layer upon layer upon layer until all of a sudden there's a massive structure underneath. All of these tiny visual and verbal pieces of information come together to create an overall impression. You know, to sum it all up, it's that gut feeling that you have: Do you like that person or not?

Our Brains can be Used Against Us

You know, our brains are pretty incredible. It processes all of this complex information in fractions of a second - so fast that we don't even know it's happening. And this is what I feel is a bit of a warning. We process this information so fast that (like I said) we don't even know it’s happening, which means that you can be influenced and swayed in ways you didn't even realize.

Now when branding and politics come together, they have the highest stakes. You know, if you buy a Ford or a Chevy, the rest of the country and the fate of our culture doesn't really hang in the balance. But depending on who you vote for, our society really can change, for better or for worse. So, we're not here to tell you which way to vote, and we're not telling you what we specifically believe. We're not here to tout our ideas of what our culture should be. We're just here to let you know that - even though you might feel that it's your moral compass and your core beliefs that are driving who you vote for - to just double check. That there might be ways that a politician might be swaying you and influencing you and getting you to like them, and you might not even realize it.

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