Pictured above: Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign logo.

Brand development: A quick look at the power of symbols.

Back in the good old days of cowboys and cattle drives, “brands” were marks to identify ownership of livestock. That ownership eventually became a stamp of quality in cattle markets. Over time, the terms “mark” and “brand” became interchangeable in the world of product marketing. (In francophone countries, the word “Marque” – the French equivalent of ‘Mark’ – is still in use today.)

Whatever your language of choice, the term “brand” has since evolved to encompass almost every facet of a specific business’ identity, from cultural relevance and market leadership to the ability to routinely create iconic products and build a great reputation. At the forefront of a brand (as printed on a company’s packaging, products, websites, letterhead, front door, etc. is its mark. Its logo. Its symbol.

Humans like symbols and emblems, whether they show up on flags, military unit patches, family crests, educational institutions’ emblems, sports teams’ uniforms, the butt of livestock, products, or corporate letterhead. We wear them on T-shirts and baseball caps. We stick them on our cars and laptops. We paste them onto our desktops. We add them to our Facebook walls. Some of us even get them tattooed sometimes. (Note: The next photo is not of me.) That is the level of emotional attachment that people can have with symbols, which is why almost every organization in the world uses them.

Without flags, symbols, marks and logos, what would initially separate Nike from Adidas, France from Belgium, Dell from HP, Volkswagen from Audi, or even the Yankees from the Socks? (I said initially! Chill, sports fans.)

To illustrate the role that evocative emblems (logos) can play in the success and longevity of a brand, here are a few you might be familiar with:

Pretty potent stuff. Okay, so we’ve established the power of logos. Badges. Emblems.Symbols.Whatever you choose to call them. We can move on now.

The emergence of branding concepts and logos in political campaigns.

One of the prime newcomers on the list of most-viewed “logos” in the last few months has been Presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s distinctive circular sunrise and stripes. Last month, I brought you the history of the Republican and Democratic parties’ elephant and donkey emblems; today, I bring you a little bit of insight into how the Obama campaign logo came to be.

From Chicago Business News:

A team of Chicago graphic designers has given Barack Obama’s campaign its signature look. Sol Sender of Sender LLC and five others in his firm created the logo the Illinois senator is using for his 2008 presidential bid.

The icon, a gradated blue “o” featuring three red stripes, is prominently displayed on Mr. Obama’s campaign Web site pages and featured on t-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers.

Sender LLC is a Chicago brand consultancy and design studio whose clients include Crain’s.

“We were looking at the “o” of his name and had the idea of a rising sun and a new day,” Mr. Sender said. “The sun rising over the horizon evoked a new sense of hope.”

“It begins to break with tradition while also rooting itself in tradition,” said Peter Krivkovich, CEO of Cramer-Krasselt advertising agency in Chicago. “Patriotism is the foundation, but above that is hope, opportunity, newness.”

While most presidential campaign sign designers have traditionally not strayed beyond the realm of background color and font type, it is interesting to see logo design finally make its way into the world of voter influence tactics.

Of course, we don’t need to look too far to find another example of catchy political logo work of late. Our sitting president, George W. Bush’s iconic “W” (ironically adopted by Oliver Stone as the title of his latest movie) has served as an emblem in its own right, showing up on bumper stickers, T-shirts and even underwear.

Where do we go from here?

Are we seeing a new trend in presidential political marketing? Possibly. If the objective is to help a candidate appear to stand stand for something greater than a political platform or formulaic series of promises, why not create an emblem that can hold that message for them and resonate with an audience in the same way that our favorite brand logos do? Why not transcend agendas and soundbites to create something greater – something that can be conveyed in a symbol? It looks like political strategists have finally tapped into our need to rally behind symbols rather than… words. In the same way that we get behind Apple, Harley Davidson, Nike and New York Yankees logos, we can now get behind our presidential candidates’ logos and truly join their team.

It’s probably too soon to tell whether or not a candidate – in spite of their record, position in regards to issues and even charisma – might actually gain an advantage over another by having a well-designed logo, but the question is well worth asking.

Eh.

One quick word of caution as present and future presidential hopefuls begin to venture across the candidate-to-brand barrier in order to gain a strategic advantage: The margin of error in the world of brands is razor-thin. As expectations rise to unrealistic levels (political leadership is much more complex and volatile than market leadership), each mistake become increasingly costly. (The White House doesn’t have a customer service department. You aren’t likely getting a refund or a discount coupon in the mail when things don’t go your way.)

The power that comes with becoming a brand can be too much for just one man (or woman) to handle – even for a Washington, Kennedy, Roosevelt or Lincoln.

As my uncle Ben once told me, with great power comes great responsibility. Something to consider once elections are behind us and the time comes to actually deliver.

Have a great weekend, everyone. 😉

image of Super Obama by legendary graphic artist Alex Ross.