Last month, Democratic Party leaders in Washington announced that a new slogan, “For the People,” will be replacing “A Better Deal,” their 2017 rebranding campaign.
“A Better Deal” is largely regarded by pundits and partisans alike as a milquetoast failure. But by trying to replace it with the just-as-milquetoast “For the People,” Democrats are demonstrating in real time an important political axiom for our social media age: branding matters now more than ever, and publicly struggling to do it well can lead to excruciating public relations issues.
It’s not hard to tell what Democratic voters want from their party – they’ve been producing snappy, memorable slogans entirely on their own since President Trump took office.
They may be ludicrous ideas, but there’s no denying that “Impeach Trump,” “Abolish ICE,” and “Medicare for All” are all two of the most important things a slogan can be: strong and communicative – regardless of how unpopular and objectionable they are.
Neither “A Better Deal” nor “For the People” hits those critical marks. Both are bland, meaningless, hackneyed appeals to populism – a political style that demands authenticity – and while shoddy branding alone isn’t likely to sink a political operation (President Obama managed to get reelected in 2012 despite his empty slogan, “Forward”) voters know inauthenticity when they see it. Boring, half-baked clichés repurposed as party brands aren’t likely to help the cause.
Effective, inspired brand messaging, however, can do wonders for a campaign.
While countless skeptical pundits mocked, criticized, or outright insulted President Trump’s now-iconic “Make America Great Again!” slogan, they were wrong to do so – not just because Trump’s message proved to be more enticing than his competitor’s, but because unlike “I’m With Her” and the Democrats’ more recent slogans, President Trump’s brand engaged with voters, encouraging them to map their hopes onto President Trump’s candidacy and proposed agenda. In contrast, Clinton’s slogan mirrored many criticisms of the candidate herself: egotistical, uninspiring, and Hillary-centric.
During and after the election, “Make America Great Again!” as a brand took on a life of its own, proving its staying power and its resonance with voters as it evolved into “#MAGA” on Twitter and in conservative circles around the country. This is the social media era, and a brand that can be condensed, shared, and widely understood – a brand the size of a hashtag – can make all the difference.
The Democrats' failure to effectively brand themselves won’t be the most singular cause if they come up empty handed in November, but it’ll certainly be a contributing one. The fact that they’ve been so publicly trying and failing to rebrand demonstrates that they know the importance of a strong central message – and that they know they haven’t been able to come up with one yet.