Andrew Yang will take the national stage at the Democratic debate tonight. A virtual unknown a few months ago, Yang is now considered a real contender who has disrupted the Democratic primary. What has contributed to Yang’s success and what implications does this have for brands?
Successful brands stand apart from other brands on at least one dimension that is important to consumers (we call that Relevant Clarity®). Part of developing Relevant Clarity includes getting consumers to know your name and to learn what you stand for. Building brand awareness isn’t as simple as splashing your logo everywhere; your brand assets must convey that distinct meaning. Here is where brands can learn from Andrew Yang, a political outsider who has used his distinctiveness in a deep pool of candidates to stand out, ultimately making the cut for the competitive Thursday debate.
There are two components to successful brand assets, political or otherwise: they must be recognizable (i.e., people are able to quickly match the image with the correct brand name) and distinctive (i.e., people are able to reject the brand images with the wrong brand’s name). In the context of the political race, the candidates’ brand assets are their faces. Just like with brand logos and similar assets, when potential voters see a candidate’s ads and messaging, they need to be able to quickly and accurately match the message with the correct candidate’s name.
To understand how the Democratic primary candidates’ brands stacked up, we conducted a study that examined how recognizable and distinctive the candidates were amongst eligible voters who had watched any of the Democratic debates in July. We utilized an approach that uses response times to quantify the strength of brand assets. Specifically, we looked at the speed with which people accurately identify a brand (i.e. a candidate) when they see one of the brand’s assets (in this case the candidates face), assessing both the level of recognition and distinctiveness. Iconic Asset strength is the sum of these two measures.
Andrew Yang comes in fifth overall in Iconic Asset strength. He earns a sixth place rank in recognition, but he really shines in distinctiveness, second only to Bernie Sanders. How can a relative newcomer earn such position among voters?
As an Asian man, Andrew Yang is physically distinctive among the Democratic candidates and indeed among politicians in general (~3% of Congress identifies as Asian or Pacific Islander). He leans into this distinctiveness with his slogan M.A.T.H. (“Make America Think Harder”) and his signature one-liner: “We need to do the opposite of much of what we’re doing right now — and the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.” But physical distinctiveness is unlikely to explain it all. Yang is the only candidate putting universal income front and center, saying the country must prepare for the impact of automation. This message resonates with many voters wondering about accelerating technology disruption. Yang also stands out from the crowd as a Washington outsider. He reinforces his unique image by eschewing the typical political uniform. Yang didn’t wear a tie to the last debate and skipped the canned political responses in favor of being personable and genuine. For example, Yang talked about his family, his son with autism, and even cried on stage talking about gun control.
Startups or newer brands can take a couple of pages from Yang’s book to win in the marketplace. First, build a strong foundation for long-term success with a differentiated brand position; stand for something, even if it is just one thing, that really matters to consumers. Then, you need to break through the clutter. One very powerful way to do that is with brand assets that catch the attention of consumers, enabling them to recognize your brand and to distinguish you from your competitors in the marketplace.
Regardless of the outcome of the Democratic primaries, Yang has built a strong brand that now gives him more influence – not the least of which is inspiring other new brands, political or otherwise, to make their mark.