The making of Mayor Pete

Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination is fascinating from a branding and communication perspective.

First, he is letting his supporters control his brand identity. The design firm Hyperakt has created an online design toolkit that aids supporters in creating their own yard signs and other materials in their own way. So the design agency is serving as facilitator, not gatekeeper, and is empowering supporters.

The campaign also is incorporating subtle messaging in its visual identity.  There is an image of a bridge that is a central part of his branding (representing bridging the divide that exists in the country) and the various color schemes are intended to bring to mind team sports, which his campaign believes will appeal to voters in the Midwest and also build a sports-like loyalty among his supporters.

Third, he seems to be modeling the George Lakoff linguistic approach to progressive messaging. In his speech announcing his candidacy, he made a clear attempt to redefine, in progressive terms, the meaning of the word freedom

He also is avoiding “fight/warrior” metaphors, which are prominent among other Democratic candidates, but which are at odds with Lakoff’s “Nurturant Parent” vision of successful progressive messaging.

Finally, how would a Republican opponent go after him? Often, Republicans have made subtle attacks (or, in President Trump’s case, not-so-subtle attacks) on male opponents’ masculinity. Buttigieg is gay and a veteran so it is unclear whether those kinds of attacks would stick. They can’t frame him as a coastal elite, given that he is a small-town mayor in Indiana.  It would be hard to paint him as a fringe radical, given his demeanor, appearance, and small-town bonafides.

Maybe they would try to frame him as weak or naïve, which could stick given the narrowness of his experience. Is it predictive that this cover story of New York magazine refers to him as a “boy” and features an image that closely resembles Steve Carrell’s depiction in promotional signs for The 40-Year-Old Virgin?

Overall, he is a fascinating candidate with a highly non-traditional background and unorthodox communication strategy. It will be interesting to see how it plays out for him.