Every 17 years, Arizonans experience a particularly heavy cycle of noisy cicadas who leave a mess behind when they shed their exoskeletons. But there’s another plague that crops up much more frequently and is far more of a nuisance: election campaigns. The first horseman of the Election Apocalypse — campaign signs — has already cropped up at every intersection.

In every community, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly, and as much as we decry their clutter, they provide a masterclass in marketing that all businesses can apply.


1. Less is More.

Too many candidates cram way too much information onto their signs, forgetting that motorists tend to be driving by too fast to read them, or stopped too far away to decipher bullet points. Details like a candidate’s position on the issues should be saved for direct mail, a website and media interviews.

The best signs display the candidate’s name, office sought and perhaps a short but memorable slogan. Anything more is too much for passersby to process. The same lesson applies to marketing collateral — whether it’s website microcopy, an ad or a billboard, it’s imperative to keep the user experience in mind. Keep it simple, especially in a time when attention spans are short and targets scroll quickly.

When in doubt, think like Coco Chanel, whose advice about accessories is also good for marketing: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”


2. Simplicity applies doubly to colors.

Every election cycle, there’s a candidate who tries to stand out by using a bright color like green, yellow or purple (or worse, several at once). Although they stand out, it generally doesn’t leave a favorable impression. Too often, these candidates come across as inexperienced amateurs, leaving voters to question their professionalism as well as their taste.

Businesses are no different; many use mismatched or clashing colors in their materials and on their websites. Moreover, they often don’t consider what the colors chosen convey to consumers. Different colors have a range of psychological effects; color choice is particularly important in website design. The right colors enhance your message, not detract from it.


3. Contrast is your friend.

Although red, white and blue are the most popular color choices, red text on a blue background can be difficult to read — especially from a distance or when the font size is small. Colored text on top of a photo presents a similar problem. Candidates whose signs have the greatest contrast (white text on a dark background, or vice versa) are much more memorable.

Color contrast is every bit as important when designing a website, especially when considering the user experience for customers with disabilities. The National Disability Authority provides a variety of accessibility factors for companies to consider in constructing their sites.


4. Save the vanity for a mirror.

Likely believing a photo personalizes their campaign or perhaps makes them more trustworthy, many candidates put their faces on their signs. However, doing so can have the opposite effect by evoking associations with hucksters whose faces appear on buses and benches. Photos that are too large, too small or poorly placed make an even worse impression. Generally, putting a face on a campaign sign doesn’t add any value — the approach is better saved for direct mail pieces that provide more detail about a candidate’s background, qualifications and stand on the issues.

Companies, of course, can also make this mistake by plastering executives on the homepage and collateral materials. Although there are times and places to boldly position executives, it’s generally best for the focus to be on the competitive value of the products or services.


5. Poorly designed logos and obscure images detract from your message.

It’s common for signs to incorporate the Arizona flag in some way; those who use it in their names are a little derivative of Obama’s “Hope” campaign, but that’s a mild offense compared to random images others include. Many candidates love to plaster local landmarks on their signs, but unless they personally created it, the symbol tells voters nothing about them or their suitability for office. However, the strangest image this cycle is a town council candidate who has a penguin on his sign. Unless he’s running for zookeeper or virtue signaling to an underground cabal of penguin enthusiasts, it’s not a strategic addition and creates questions in voters’ minds about his seriousness about the position.

Some companies likewise fall into this trap, opting to outsource design to the cheapest person on Upwork or Fiverr instead of selecting experienced professionals who understand positioning. Others have good logos but lack or fail to follow brand guidelines and end up with bastardized versions on their materials and social media. Working with a reputable firm helps ensure businesses present a clean, polished brand that resonates with customers.


6. Creativity in placement makes a world of difference.

Marketing students have the four Ps drilled into their heads, and one — Place — can make a tremendous difference. Even the best-designed signs can get lost when surrounded by a sea of signs the same size and height. The easy answer is to find a different corner, but odds are it won’t be long until others follow.

Savvy candidates instead find other ways to stand out — perhaps by trying a different shape like a diamond or a tall, thin rectangle instead of the standard square. Others place a series of signs leading up to the others. They might also consider using a taller stand so their signs are literally above everyone else’s.

Businesses who have stiff competition must also find ways to differentiate themselves and their products or services. Positioning is even more critical when they aren’t the frontrunner; it can define a new use for a product or an untapped market to pursue. Partnering with an agency to develop strong messaging is imperative, and agencies are also adept at devising creative means to command attention. Marketing and advertising campaigns incorporate a variety of tactics for building brand awareness, while public relations campaigns are particularly useful for not only capturing thought leadership and share of voice, but also motivating a change in behavior.

By applying these lessons, political candidates and businesses alike can avoid committing marketing faux pas that derail their campaigns and are as welcome as discarded cicada shells. Better still, investing in a partnership with a marketing and public relations agency will result in a strategic effort that serves a long-term purpose.