Understanding the Bernie Sanders Brand

If you needed a reason to believe in the power of personal branding, just look to the 2016 presidential election to understand its influence. In this four-part series, we’ll take a look at how candidates (past and present) built their brands with content and the success – or failure – of their strategies. 

Serious messaging without taking himself too seriously

Years ago, when I was a newbie reporter watching (and wishing I could cover) the meteoric rise of the first Clinton to run for the presidency, one of the nicest things my ultra-conservative editor-in-chief had to say about “Slick Willy” was: “He knows how to stay on message.” Today, as a content marketing professional, I’d more charitably say Bill knew how to clearly define and communicate his personal brand.

Staying consistent is one of the cardinal rules of building your personal brand, and in 2016 the Democratic candidate who’s doing that best has to be Bernie Sanders. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, it’s hard to dispute that Bernie Sanders’ brand messaging has remained consistent throughout his campaign. Republicans and Democrats alike can identify his personal brand, even if they describe it and respond to it in very different ways.

Detractors call Sanders a single-issue candidate or, less kindly, a one-trick pony (my old editor would have used that description), for his continued emphasis on social issues like health care and income inequality. Yet by repeating the same messaging through multiple channels of communication, and couching it in terminology particular to the audience he’s addressing, the Bernie Sanders brand has staged a challenge the Clinton political juggernaut hasn’t been able to ignore.

So what’s his secret? What’s Bernie doing right, or at least more right, than others still in this dog fight? For all that he nurtures an image as an independent thinker, Sanders has closely followed these essential rules of personal branding in the digital age:

Keep it consistent

No matter where you encounter the Bernie Sanders personal brand, you know what he’s going to be talking about. On the Bernie Sanders Twitter feed, topics rotate through health care, income inequality, immigration reform and raising the minimum wage. His messaging is consistent, whether it’s on the issues page of his campaign website, where “income and wealth inequality” lead off the list of topics, on Instagram where he has 1.3 million followers, or Facebook where Sanders recently posted that “Separating hundreds of thousands of immigrant families is not an American value.”

Be unique

In the field of candidates, Sanders has managed to develop a brand that is unique and, in its own way, as pioneering as Barack Obama’s was. Donald Trump isn’t the first millionaire to run for president. Do we all remember Ross Perot and Mitt Romney? Nor is Hillary Clinton the first woman to run. That was Victoria Woodhull, who ran about 50 years before the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote, let alone hold office. Sanders, however, has embraced his singularity as the first Jewish socialist to run for president.

Be shareable

In the digital age, your messaging must be shareable in order to maximize its reach. Bernie Sanders’ social media following on channels like Twitter and Instagram demonstrates his campaign successfully distills key messages down to shareable bites like this one:

In just 19 minutes, the tweet had earned more than 700 likes and been re-tweeted over 300 times.

Know your audience and where they’re finding you

For a guy in his 70s, Sanders’ campaign has been savvy about engaging younger voters. That’s because in addition to channels that appeal more to his own age group, Sanders is also using the afore-mentioned social media to reach millennials and Gen X voters. And while his core messaging has remained the same, he successfully tailors the delivery to fit the communication channel and the expectations of those consuming information through it.

Don’t take yourself too seriously

When I worked in PR, my mentor had a favorite directive for every new client we took on: “If you want other people to believe your B.S., you’d better not buy into it yourself.” Presidential contests expose the best and worst of the candidates, and with the eyes of the world on them, it’s easy for candidates to fall into the trap of taking themselves far too seriously. While they’re certainly dealing with serious issues, and putting in months-long applications for the most important job in the world, candidates would do well to remember the value of humor. With self-deprecating jokes about his chronically untameable hair, and appearances on Saturday Night Live beside sitcom icon Larry David, Sanders has demonstrated he’s not afraid to laugh at himself.

Whether Sanders has a shot at claiming the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, remains to be seen. But he’s certainly made an impression with his unique political brand, and it’s one we’re all likely to be talking about for many elections yet to come.

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