It’s one of the most famous political campaigns of all time. William Henry Harrison, general and hero from some of America’s wars of the early 19th century, would soon become more famous for holding the presidency for the shortest amount of time (31 days), which still stands today.
Before that unfortunate record, though, the Harrison presidential campaign provided historians and marketers alike with a quality lesson in branding.
A Quick Bio
The son of a founding father, William Henry Harrison was born in Virginia in 1773. That made him the last president who was born a British subject. Originally attending medical school, Harrison’s father died leaving the young student unable to afford to continue his studies. Thus, in a move that would define the rest of his life, he abandoned his medical ambitions in favor of a military career.
National Park Service
Harrison earned his stripes in a number of battles and wars against the indigenous peoples of North America. He participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which ended the Northwest Indian War. Seventeen years later, Harrison led a military force at the Battle of Tippecanoe against the Tecumseh Confederacy from the Great Lakes region, where he earned his nickname “Old Tippecanoe.” At the onset of the War of 1812, he was promoted to a major general.
While serving in the military, Harrison began his political career in 1798 when he was appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory (think the modern-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin). A year later, he was elected as the territory’s delegate in the House of Representatives and served in that position for two years before President Adams appointed him governor of the Indiana Territory. After moving to Ohio following the War of 1812, Harrison was elected to the United States House of Representatives, and eventually to the United States Senate until 1828. After a stint as ambassador to the Republic of Colombia, Harrison returned to private life before eventually losing the presidential election as a Whig to Democrat Martin Van Buren.
It was the brilliant branding of his next presidential campaign that won Harrison his seat in the White House.
Van Buren, the incumbent president, was widely unpopular. In the previous presidential election, he rode the coattails of Andrew Jackson’s popularity to a decisive victory over Harrison and a host of other challengers. The Panic of 1837 launched the country into a major depression that lasted until the mid-1840s; and, much like Herbert Hoover nearly one hundred years later, Van Buren was getting the blame for the fiscal and monetary policies of his predecessor.
In 1836, the Whigs ran three different candidates, Harrison included. This time around, to ensure the best possible chance of a victory, the Whigs united behind Harrison.
The Harrison campaign ran under the catchy slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!,” which referenced the military veteran’s nickname “Old Tippecanoe” and the Whigs’ vice-presidential choice, John Tyler.
At 67, Harrison was the oldest presidential candidate up to that point. The only specifics about his presidency he offered during the campaign was a pledge that he’d only serve one term. His lack of policy proposals earned him yet another nickname from a Democratic newspaper — “General Mum.” Reporters of different stripes lambasted the Whigs’ presidential nominee, and one reporter even argued that if offered hard cider and a reasonable retirement pension, Harrison might quit the campaign altogether.
That taunt resonated with an America filled with people who lived in log cabins at some point in their lives, and the Whigs took advantage.
Harrison was born into wealth and continued doing well for himself at the upper echelons of the United States military. Nonetheless, they used the Democrats’ taunt to paint Harrison as just that kind of man — a common man who actually would prefer to kick back hard cider in his log cabin… just like the average American voter. In turn, the Whigs painted Van Buren as an elitist who was out of touch with the common man. Unlike Harrison, Van Buren was not born into wealth. Rather, he was the son of a tavern-keeper in New York.
It wasn’t the reality that mattered to voters, however. It was the messaging.
The Age of Jackson brought with it a general distaste for the political elite. Before the election of Andrew Jackson, the land ownership requirement for voting was dropped, which broadened suffrage to poor white men. They had their hero in Jackson, the poor orphan who grew to become the third wealthiest president (after George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) at the time of his inauguration until Theodore Roosevelt knocked him to fourth about 70 years later. Jackson rode that perception — that branding, if you will — to a popular vote victory in 1824, and an electoral college victory four years later.
The Whigs — the sworn enemy of “King Andrew” Jackson — capitalized on that same type of branding. They painted Harrison, also a military hero, as a commoner who rose up to become the war hero and politician that sought their vote against the very unpopular President Van Buren.
And it worked; Harrison went on to beat Van Buren in an electoral landslide.
Successful “Tippecanoe”-Type Campaigns
Much like the electorate in the 1840s, consumers gravitate towards brands that fit their values or goals and are repelled by those that run counter to those values and goals.
For years, McDonald’s has fought its image as the source of America’s obesity epidemic. The award-winning documentary Super Size Me popularized that image when the director and star Morgan Spurlock’s overall health deteriorated right before the viewers’ eyes after consuming three meals at the fast-food chain for thirty straight days.
Over the last decade or so, though, McDonald’s has tried to rebrand itself by offering more health-conscious meals, including a greater variety of salads. Additionally, it has refashioned itself into a competitor against the likes of Starbucks and Dunkin’ by appealing to the coffee crowd with its more expensive premium coffee selections. Though the stigma of being an obesity-causing fast-food chain has not really gone away, McDonald’s marketing focus on its variety of selections has brought some of its customers back.
Harrison was a wealthy slave-owner, but changed the narrative to better suit his campaign. McDonald’s responded to its critics by changing its products and services to counteract the critiques.
In the late 1990s, Target was viewed as another Walmart — low-brow and discounted. But over the next couple of decades, Target (still definitely a discount store) began inking exclusive deals with high-profile designers, and now offers high-quality products at more affordable prices.
The Whigs were able to capture the commoners’ votes by selling a Harrison presidency as a repeat of their hero — a self-made military hero. Target has been able to capture their consumers by selling certain products that makes them the Walmart of the bourgeoisie.
Harrison’s legacy is buried under his month-long presidency, and in the almost legend-like anecdote that he refused to wear an overcoat during his long inaugural address. That decision led to pneumonia that eventually killed him.
But, the “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” branding during the 1840 presidential election is also the stuff of (branding) legend. It completely shifted the perspective of voters. Modern brands that need to shift their customers’ perspectives should not downplay such a move.