Power Players

Andrew Yang's no-tie look, Elizabeth Warren's blazer: How wardrobe choices can make or break a brand

Former tech executive Andrew Yang gestures during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

In a crowded field of 2020 Democratic hopefuls, the wardrobe choices at this week's presidential primary debates revealed a significant amount about each candidate's potential to succeed.

At Wednesday night's debate, amid a sea of dark clothing, Elizabeth Warren stepped out in loose black pants and a black top. Her bright, jewel-toned purple blazer was as memorable as her most commanding line: "I have a plan."

Standing alongside nine other candidates, Warren's look made a powerful statement that complimented her politically-savvy performance and executive presence, as evidenced by her ability to project a mature self-confidence and communicate complex ideas in a simple manner.

"Elizabeth Warren looked like a college professor with a bunch of graduate students around her half the time," said CNN political commentator Van Jones. "She was able to go back and forth between policy and the human thing better than anybody."

The 2020 campaign is essentially a branding opportunity for candidates to become more appealing and memorable to voters. In order to succeed, they'll need to establish a distinctive and compelling image that balances between looking presidential and standing out.

Andrew Yang went out on a limb with a no-tie look at Thursday night's debate, a decision that further reinforced his tech-centric image as venture capitalist and entrepreneur.

Yang's eye-raising fashion statement ignited a social media flurry and late-night hosts didn't hesitate to poke fun at it. For better or worse, all that attention seemed to distract viewers from how well he did or didn't do at the debate.

One of the biggest missed opportunities was Beto O'Rourke, who throughout the campaign has projected a more youthful energy. But his dark black suit, white collared shirt and predictable blue tie clashed with his usual choice of jeans and a blue button down (with an open collar and rolled up sleeves, of course).

Even in this day and age, the "presidential look" is basically defined — for men and women — as wearing a dark suit. Wednesday night's candidates largely stuck to that playbook, which resulted in an incredible amount of similarity, with the exception of Warren's pop of purple.

Candidates on Thursday were more varied in their looks: Kirsten Gillibrand wore her signature dress, while Eric Swalwell, perhaps in attempt to appear more youthful, took a risk by opting for an orange tie.

Pete Buttigieg is largely known for not wearing a blazer, but he did for the debate, even though it made him appear physically restrained — an apparent trade-off in his desire to look like a polished and campaign-approved candidate. And that's the problem with trying to look presidential: It's impossible to stand out in a crowd when everyone else is dressed the same.

When it comes to branding, differentiation is key, provided it's done in a way that resonates with voters. As the campaign continues, candidates must be strategic in creating a unique brand that aligns with their political views, from what they say and do to how they present themselves. Otherwise, someone else will do it for them.

Tim Calkins is a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he teaches a course on leadership and executive strategy. In 2018, Tim received the Top Professor Award from Germany's Kellogg-WHU Executive MBA Program. He has been featured in Business Week, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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