Your first acquaintance with grassroots congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may not have been the moment she won her seat, but rather her saffron campaign signage by Tandem NYC. Now that AOC is successfully in office, Tandem is back on the ground designing campaigns for the next class of candidates. As these upstart movements become more common, another trend has emerged. Unexpected design players, more used to digital campaigns than political ones, are popping up around these candidates. They apply an unlikely blend of startup savvy, experience design, and brand strategy to rethink what it looks like to run for office in 2020, going far beyond logos and email templates.
A few years ago, Anjelica Triola was an expert in digital and brand marketing for big companies, happily pumping up the volume on campaigns for Adidas, Target and LVMH. The presidential election of 2016 hit her like a record scratch. “We all kind of saw something where we thought, ‘My gosh, Democrats are pretty crappy at marketing, compared to what other sides are doing,’’” Triola remembered. As far as she could see, the most basic thinking she used to build corporate campaigns wasn’t even at play. “There are a lot of best practices that can be leveraged that we use to sell sneakers and laptops and lip gloss, that could work just as well to teach people why it’s important to vote and why every vote matters,” she thought. Looking to offer tips, she started poking around the corners of politics, but hit walls at every turn. No one was warm to the idea of a campaign CMO. “No one was really ready for it,” she said.
Instead, Triola found her candidate close to home. A close friend, Suraj Patel, had been debating a run for office and decided to take the leap with her for the 2018 midterm elections. Meanwhile, Scott Starrett, cofounder of design agency Tandem NYC was teaming up with another upstart campaign, that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who Starrett now refers to as “the Beyoncé of politics.” Just like Triola, everywhere he looked in the traditional campaign process, from knocking on strangers’ doors to mass mailings, Starrett saw ways design strategy could rejigger the process. “When you get someone in there who has been a field director all their life… they may not be aware of some of the peripheral pain points where they’re losing people,” he said. Analyzing the full sweep of the process and scoping where value might be lost along the way was the perfect challenge for a team of creative directors and design strategists to take on.
Triola's focused Patel's campaign on simple and inviting messages that activated voters.
As both campaigns buckled down to the David and Goliath task of winning congressional seats held for years by incumbents, they also wrestled an even bigger hurdle: how to bring design and brand strategy to a field deeply allergic to innovation in order to deliver a great experience from the moment a customer (ahem, constituent) walks in the door.
The process for shaking up a campaign is remarkably intuitive for these creatives entering the field for the first time. In a world dominated by the iconography of stars and stripes, designers start by bringing a holistic brand approach to a campaign. Starrett said a common mistake in politics is to stop short at defining the candidate. “The politician, while important and ultimately the person to take office, they are the logo or the representation of the brand itself,” he said. Starrett pointed out that the brand message must be tuned to a complicated maze of target audiences: not only netting voters, but also inviting the right people to volunteer and help out. Triola takes a similarly inclusive view of brand identity that extends beyond the candidate. “That brand is an extension of who you are, and who your team strives to be and behave like, and the feeling you deliver every time to a customer or constituent intersects with your customer journey,” she said. Old school politics boil their “who we are” down to a slogan. Triola pushed back on that idea. “We didn’t have a slogan,” she said. “It was a feeling. And that feeling was: I belong here.”
Patel's volunteers were decked out in campaign merchandise emblazoned with the message: "New Blood."
For, Triola, newly anointed Chief Strategy and Creative Officer for Suraj Patel for US Congress, that feeling started at the campaign’s headquarters. Most campaigns rent out office space, where they can keep their strategy confidential and their materials proprietary. Bucking tradition, Triola took over a bar and turned Patel’s HQ into a clubhouse, decking it out with chalkboard signage and colorful illustration. “Our campaign manager and everyone who was more traditional on the campaign thought it was a disastrous idea,” Triola said. “The biggest concern was this idea that your ideas are proprietary and private,” Triola said. “And we deeply, deeply believed the opposite.” Far from worrying about spies from the opposition, Patel and Triola conspired to build the experience of a welcoming and porous environment. In addition to an office, the HQ also served as a venue, not just for Patel’s rallies, but for other like-minded or social impact projects. Ocasio-Cortez even hosted events there. Triola worked to create a space that felt like it belonged to everyone, including people who had never voted, didn’t care about politics, and didn’t know what Congress was. “We wanted you to walk into that space, have a positive experience, learn something, be entertained, make a new friend, and walk away feeling like politics is absolutely approachable, inclusive, and interesting to you, even if it wasn’t before,” Triola explained of the overall experience goal.
What Triola tapped into was a larger grassroots campaign focus on experience design. Learning from Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, Scott Starrett of Tandem said that experience design is one of the silver bullets that traditional campaigns are totally missing. The biggest wasted resource, according to Starrett? Volunteers. “Inside the volunteer experience is something that people overlook—because it’s not quantifiable— and that is the idea of word-of-mouth and brand ambassadors,” he said. A campaign that only sees how many envelopes a volunteer can stuff in an hour is leaving an enormous amount of power on the table. “That is a misappropriation of the true resource that a human being is when they walk through the door and offer you their time…If you can step back and invest a little more time to make sure that they understand what the campaign is all about, who the candidate is, and why they should go out and evangelize, there’s no telling how many touchpoints they make out there on their own in the world and how much they might spread the word,” said Starrett.
Tandem believes volunteers are some of the most powerful and overlooked assets of a campaign. Photo by Laura Bett.
Triola applied the same thinking to Patel’s campaign, explicitly working in terms of “brand ambassadors” and “micro-influencers,” terminology germane to the marketing world, that needed explaining in politics. As she often did, Triola mimicked the success of a brand’s strategy, in this case that of the beauty company Glossier. “The way that Glossier inspired peer-to-peer, rather than stranger-to-stranger contact is a really big thing for me,” she recalled. Looking at the tradition of canvassing, where volunteers will go door-to-door to try to get out the vote, she saw a square peg and a round hole. “It doesn’t make sense that we do only do door knocking and call banking and things like that, where you first have to accept a stranger and then that you want to have a conversation with a total stranger. We don’t do enough with using people’s existing network.” Glossier wasn’t the only company that inspired Triola. Thinking like a partnerships team, they set out to find constituents where they were: partnering up with Soul Cycle, doing events and meditation studios, registering people at WeWork, and asking Shake Shack employees to remind everyone the election was around the corner. Taking a page from Sweet Green’s book, Patel’s campaign codified a set of core values and placed them prominently in their HQ. They included values like, “Small Biz: Opportunity,” “Free Press: Critical,” and “Empathy: Essential.”
The Tandem team is back on the ground, designing for 2020.
For any creative interested in dabbling in campaigning, the similarities to companies doesn’t stop at ambassador networks and craft salad-inspired strategy. Campaigning is remarkably similar to working at a startup. “You’re constantly building the plane as you fly it,” she said. “Nothing is really set in stone. You don’t know how many resources you’re going to have because you’re constantly fundraising, constantly expanding and trimming down your team based on the emergency you’re responding to that week.” On top of that, a candidate is basically a prototype, a test model of the future politician they’ll become. “You’re kind of running a minimum viable product and you don’t even know if you’re going to go to market,” said Starrett. Going to market, of course, in this case, means getting elected.
While Starrett is back on the ground, selecting his slate of upcoming campaigns with care, Triola has taken a break from the road to focus on something else designers are great at: scale. She’s joined the team sourcing platform Wethos, which creates custom agencies from a pool of creative freelancers. Her goal? To build up the political campaign vertical. “The problem in politics for so long is people that people don’t own up to the fact they’re just very bad at marketing,” she said. She expects more upstart campaigns in the coming years, inspired by the new class of freshman in Congress like Ocasio-Cortez. For a designer thinking about offering their services to a campaign, she suggests just diving in. “Don’t be surprised,” she said. “You know so much that it seems too obvious to you if you’ve been working in advertising, digital, social. The things that you know are completely new information to this world.”
Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer.