Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Launches Strong on Inequality

There’s been a lot of harping on Hillary Clinton’s logo since she rolled out her presidential campaign last week, but her moves on economic inequality will likely have a bigger impact on her #politicalbrand.

Specifically, Clinton is making it clear early on that an anti-inequality position will represent a key piece of her brand’s vision and promise:

But when it comes to weaving an anti-economic inequality association into Clinton’s brand, her challenge is similar to an established commercial brand trying to break into a new category: “Traditionally, the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party has emphasized promoting ‘opportunity’ over reducing inequality.” Making that pivot can be a really hard thing to do, as United Airlines found out when it unsuccessfully tried to break into the discount segment with the ill-fated Ted line.

Just ask United Airlines if it's easy for a well established brand to compete in a new segment.
Just ask United Airlines if it’s easy for a well established brand to compete in a new segment.
To parahprase Rand Paul’s joke, when it comes to this issue, the Clinton political brand might be carrying more baggage on than United.

Not only has she traditionally emphasized opportunity when she could be focusing on inequality, but her husband’s treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, did things, like pushing Wall Street deregulation, that were widely credited with actively driving inequality higher. Even now, some members of the Hillary Clinton team evidently cast anti-inequality efforts as the “politics of envy.” In sum:

With Hillary and her staff about to hit up hedge-fund managers, investment bankers, tech moguls, and other rich folks for hefty campaign contributions, the suspicion lingers that, when it comes down to it, her campaign will punt, rather than directly confront, the entrenched problems of income and wealth inequality.

But it appears that, at least for now, ignoring this history and these internal critics is a savvy position:

Americans have a favorable attitude to redistribution, particularly when it is couched in terms of taking from the rich rather than giving to the poor.

So, given the expedience of making the pivot, and given the challenge it represents for a candidate like Clinton, how should she do it? This is where the rubber meets the road in branding. Many people see branding as a superficial exercise, but just as important as positioning a brand is delivering on its promise. That’s what builds brand credibility and makes all those values and emotions a logo conveys matter. A brand like Chevron, for example, charges a premium for what it markets as high-quality gasoline. Citing a branded ingredient (“Chevron with Techron“) functions as a proof point that builds the credibility of the quality claim.

"Psst...it's called a 'proof point.'"
“Psst…it’s called a ‘proof point.'”
Co-opting another brand actually turns out to be a pretty popular way for commercial brands to develop those proof points — like Coke did by purchasing Odwalla rather than developing a whole new entrant into the juice and smoothie category.

And lo and behold, Clinton has taken advantage of this strategy already. She has attached herself to famous inequality fighter Elizabeth Warren (by writing Warren’s Time 100 entry), but she’s going beyond the purely splashy moves. She’s even hired people that may not be as famous but will nonetheless subtly reinforce her credibility:

On Thursday, Hillary Clinton wrote a love letter in Time magazine to Elizabeth Warren. But what she did next is even more important for the faction of the Democratic Party that’s passionate about tightening the screws on Wall Street: she hired Gary Gensler as her campaign’s chief financial officer…

Gensler is a former banker at Goldman Sachs who became an unlikely hero of the financial reform movement during his stint as chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission…

[A]s a gesture, the indication that Gensler is in Clinton’s good graces is a very loud and clear dog whistle to financial reformers and to journalists who cover these agencies. It also implies that after leaving the Obama administration with a slew of smoking bridges, Gensler might be in line for a top financial regulation job in a hypothetical Clinton administration.

Count me impressed so far. This is what savvy political brand managers do: identify an opportunity in the political market, develop a brand vision that positions them to capitalize on it, then fortify that position with credible proof points.

Will it work? It certainly runs the risk of coming across as cynical from a candidate who has a bit of a reputation for political opportunism already. If she sticks with it, her campaign’s execution of this launch period shows they clearly have the chops to pull it off — but with internal dissent already manifest, she’ll have to avoid the indecisiveness that plagued her 2008 campaign, and we won’t know for sure whether she’s pulled that feat off until it’s all over.