2016 Presidential Candidates Pick Their Brand Proxies


Rand Ray Bans Political Brands

Will the 2016 election be about foreign relations? Immigration? The economy? The answer is none of the above—the upcoming 2016 election is going to be about brands.

As candidates jockey for position in next year’s primaries, they are staking out their positions by using brands as shorthand to build character and define themselves with potential voters. Some brands are not amused and other brand associations are backfiring.

It’s part of the job for candidates on the trail to stop by mom-and-pop shops and press the local flesh. But this year, major national brands are already part of campaign story.

Hillary Clinton wants you to know she may live the life of an cosmopolitan, elbow-rubbing internationalist but she’s not a snob about it. When the former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State struck out on her van trip to Iowa, she stopped to eat at Chipotle, as seen in the blurry image that made its way across news outlets.

The choice—a burrito bowl—spoke volumes about Clinton’s positioning: While McDonald’s is “the brand of yesterday … Chipotle is perceived as the brand of today.” Scrutiny of Clinton’s Chipotle patronage didn’t stop at the burrito bowl though, as many on the right pointed out that Chipotle’s CEO is no stranger to the Clintons.

Call it the Casual Dining Election. Coming just days after Clinton’s Chipotle run, Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is still only “exploring” a run for president, posted a photo of himself in a New Hampshire Chick-fil-A. It was almost certainly a planned response. Of course, before Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A was the poster chain for hard right conservative values, staking its position as against gay equality. During a flurry of protests in 2012, Chick-fil-A willingly became a rallying point against gay marriage activism. (In 2013, Chipotle dropped its Boy Scouts sponsorship over concerns about gay discrimination by the organization.)

Maybe because he is not well known and needs to create some memorable character, Wisconsin’s Governor Walker has proven very eager to associate himself with brand attributes. First, during a non-campaign event in New Hampshire, Walker promoted his fiscal conservative bona fides by bragging his sweater was a $1 sale purchase from Kohl’s, a Wisconsin-based retailer. This everyman narrative was reinforced a few weeks later when at another Granite State event, Walker happily noted that his suit was from Jos A. Bank, adding, “Yea, I got it in a 3-for-1 sale.”

Thinking Ray-Bans could do for his campaign what they did for Tom Cruise’s career, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, who often wears the brand, added Rand-Ban sunglasses to his campaign swag store. Selling for $150 the Rand-branded Wayfarers were described as “the intersection of politics and cool.” But not all brands are as politics-friendly as Chick-fil-A. Ray-Ban was not amused and asked Paul to pull the product. He complied.

Paul isn’t the only politician discovering that brand association can backfire. Walker’s $1 Kohl’s sweater is costing him more now as the governor is forced to respond to questions and criticism from conservatives about the millions of dollars in state subsidies his administration offered Kohl’s.


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