political campaigns

Upstart Candidate Wins Upset Through Smart Branding

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored an upset victory in a New York congressional primary through effective personal branding that included a 2-minute video, retro posters and savvy social media.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored an upset victory in a New York congressional primary through effective personal branding that included a 2-minute video, retro posters and savvy social media.

Political campaigns can reveal emerging marketing trends as well as political issues. The lopsided upset victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over an entrenched Democratic incumbent in a New York congressional primary is a case in point.

The charismatic 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez used a 2-minute video, well-design retro posters and social media savvy to defeat an incumbent with more money, a political machine and presumably greater name familiarity.

The New York Times said Congressman Joe Crowley “fawned over his district’s diversity and pitched himself as an ally.” Ocasio-Cortez “pitched herself as a member of the community itself.”

A Crowley campaign staff member told the Times, “We had people running this like a 1998 City Council race, not a 2018 congressional primary.”

The upset of an incumbent from either political party sets off alarm bells. Some pointed to Ocasio-Cortez’s Puerto Rican background matching with a diverse district consisting of Queens and the Bronx. Others pointed to her progressive agenda (Ocasio-Cortez was an organizer in the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders). She rightfully dismissed both claims. She said she won, including in non-Hispanic parts of the district, because she ran a better campaign. Evidence supports her claim.

It would be fair to say Ocasio-Cortez positioned herself as a better fit with the district’s constituency. A self-described socialist, her progressive agenda included abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Medicare for All and federal job guarantees. The abolition of ICE resonated with a constituency that consists of 50 percent immigrants. The Medicare for All and federal job guarantees respond to growing political support for economic security measures. Whatever the specifics, what Ocasio-Cortez accomplished was fairly traditional in marketing terms – she created a sense of brand loyalty and convinced voters to buy what she was selling.

Ocasio-Cortez’ techniques are instructive in their simplicity. Her introductory video showed her as part of the community, with scenes of her riding the subway. Crowley posted a 3-minute video showing him driving a car. Her video received more than 500,000 views, compared to 90,000 for Crowley’s.

Strong personal branding in the form of a compelling photograph of the candidate with a key message added a political point of view to what are often superfluous campaign buttons.

Strong personal branding in the form of a compelling photograph of the candidate with a key message added a political point of view to what are often superfluous campaign buttons.

Crowley bombarded constituent mailboxes with printed mailers. Ocasio-Cortez communicated via social media.

Ocasio-Cortez called on voters to have the “courage to change.” Crowley asked to get re-elected.

The Washington Post devoted an entire story to Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign materials. The defining element of the posters and campaign buttons was a portrait of the candidate. Instead of awkwardly smiling and looking at the viewer, Ocasio-Cortez is shown looking sideways and slightly upward in a heroic pose.

The Ocasio-Cortez campaign used strategic design to create a strong, distinctive brand for the candidate, which drew on an earlier iconic poster that conveyed multiple messages about potential campaign success and affinity for working-class Americans.

The Ocasio-Cortez campaign used strategic design to create a strong, distinctive brand for the candidate, which drew on an earlier iconic poster that conveyed multiple messages about potential campaign success and affinity for working-class Americans.

“Like Rosie the Riveter in the iconic ‘We Can Do It’ poster, Ocasio-Cortez is dressed plainly but depicted heroically,” writes Nolen Strafs and Bruce Willen of Post Typography. This impression of an ordinary person being treated as a hero sends its own message and echoes the messages of the Ocasio-Cortez campaign.”

The Ocasio-Cortez campaign also employed a rare color and choice of typography in its political advertising. The yellow posters were a stark contrast to the usual combination of red, white and blue – and also subtly mirrored the yellow background in the Rosie the Riveter ad. Her posters featured a tilted italic typeface that Strafs and Willen said provided a “dynamic upward thrust” to her campaign materials.

Strafs and Willen pointed out Ocasio-Cortez’s use of a Spanish exclamation mark around her name made bilingual materials seem natural, not forced.

“The branding has personality and point of view, something absent from most political designs (and many politicians). It feels populist, pop and polished all at once,” the designers said. “Ocasio-Cortez is treated like the star on a movie poster, like she’s a character ready for action.”

In a surprising way, Ocasio-Cortez emulated the broad strokes of Donald Trump’s successful campaign techniques in the 2016 presidential campaign by creating a distinct and distinctive brand. Just as Trump dusted off a dozen GOP campaign competitors by being very different, she dislodged what many viewed as a Democratic political fixture in Washington, DC with the same pitch.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Era of Post-Truth Politics

A political commentator observed after the first presidential debate that we have entered the "post-truth era" of politics in America, where facts are less important than narratives.

Time Magazine featured a major story called "The Fact Wars," which concludes that presidential candidates are battling over alternate universes, charging each other with lying, while avoiding their own accountability for sticking to the facts. Time says political fact-checking fills much of the nightly news and print news columns. But that doesn't stop the distortions from continuing.

Much of the criticism of President Barack Obama's debate performance centered on his failure to call out misleading statements by his GOP challenger Mitt Romney. On the other hand, Romney was lauded for directly confronting Obama during the debate, often with claims that have already been discredited.

Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, lamented in her blog what she called "the decline of facts."

"Researchers have theorized that people tend to seek out validation of their existing beliefs rather than neutrally research some objective truth," Cripps wrote.

The tsunami of information rushing through the Internet overwhelms the instinct to slow down and scrutinize what is true and what is BS. "Ensconced in our media bubbles," Cripps said, "we are used to having our beliefs validated for us and often aren't subjected to serious critiques of what we think." 

Telling falsehoods didn't just start in this election. Time notes that in 1796 supporters of John Adams spread tales of Thomas Jefferson's alleged atheism and loyalty to France, while Jefferson's aides concocted stories about Adams' monarchist sympathies. In fact, the campaigns descended a lot lower than that.

Cripps observes, "The decline of facts is by no means limited to politics. University presidents report that plagiarism on the part of students is on the rise. So, too, is fraudulent scientific research." She could have added bogus advertising claims, falsified media interviews and the myriad of Ponzi schemes that have fleeced retirees, investors and average citizens of billions of dollars.