The Art of Slogans: MATH, Google Andrew Yang, Humanity First, and A New Way Forward

Andrew Yang’s campaign for president in 2020 had four memorable slogans, conceived in this order: 1) Humanity First, 2) Google Andrew Yang, 3) MATH, 4) A New Way Forward.

The slogan evolution tells a story. We begin with a wholesome platitude. We become desperate. We start flexing unconventional ideologies. Then we finish with a meaningless platitude. The developments represent four distinct phases of building a brand that is common when launching a new venture. We’ll cover all of this here today, so put your thinking hat on!

HUMANITY FIRST: The Clueless Beginnings

Humanity First was the campaign’s first slogan and the slogan used at launch. In these days, it was me, Yang, first-employee Muhan Zhang, and a contractor. We worked on the couch in Yang’s mother’s apartment in our socks. We often ate Peruvian hot dogs out of tin trays for lunch. We had no idea how to run for president.

When we first began drafting our slogan, we struggled. Like most people, we looked at what the organization (Yang) represented and said, “gee, golly, how do we boil this down into just a few words?” Slogan making is tough. That’s no lie. Let’s break down why that is.

There are three core design challenges when making a slogan:

  1. bringing a complex message to an uninformed audience without losing the original message (referred to as message Fidelity)
  2. paradoxically achieving this in just a few words
  3. also making the slogan structurally catchy or at least original

It should go without saying that the complexity of this task causes there to only be a small number of acceptable choices when condensing a message. This is why platitudes exist and litter the world. How many ways can the millions of writers, activists, organizations, and politicians talk about the same causes?

(Caveat: this is why I listen closely to platitudes! They are actually onto something!)

Our initial slogans ideas sought to emphasize different dimensions of what UBI meant with expressions like “You’ve Earned It,” “End Poverty Now,” “Plenty for Many,” “Today Can be Better,” and “How Will You Spend It?” We were trying to be original, but none of them felt right. We eventually tested our ideas with an online survey, and pretty much no one cared about any of them except for one — Humanity First.

We chose Humanity First because 1) it fit the central ethos of Yang (Yang often said, well, what else would come first?) 2) it did well on the surveys, 3) we had nothing better. Besides that, we were mostly ambivalent towards it. And that is not a winning equation!

When I look back on this slogan three years later, I’d rate its success somewhere between acceptable and failure. At no point on the campaign did I ever want to wear Humanity First merchandise (and neither did anyone else — HF sales were poor), and that’s a red flag.

It may not seem holistic, but that was always my benchmark in branding: Would someone (lots of someones) ACTUALLY wear this for a reason beyond being an excessively motivated activist?

Catchiness is essential for the outsider company. In my view, outsiders and insurgents have to associate with an ideology bigger than themselves because they’re losers and irrelevant on their own. They need an ideology they can champion that they can become associated with — and that ideology is what you sell and ride into relevancy. Far too many nobodies run for office on generic platforms and their name. Excuse me, but all those consultants telling you to copy the strategies of the well-known candidates are horrendously wrong.

My negative evaluation of Humanity First isn’t wrong. The slogan empirically failed to excite and organize people around our campaign. If we refer to the three design challenges, we failed on a few marks. 1) We lost the message. Yang’s ethos might have been people, but that wasn’t actually his message (more on what was, later). 2) The slogan wasn’t really that original.

A third issue is that the slogan wasn’t very good at motivating. Humanity First is not exciting because it’s too wholesome and benevolent. There’s a reason the news doesn’t cover the news; it covers doom. Here’s a list of what sentiments are actually proven in marketing to sell, for better or for worse.

Sensationalism, Extremism, Sex, Scandal, Hatred, Conflict, Triviality, Titillation, Dogmatism, Anger, Fear, Outrage, Laughter, Excitement, Controversy, Strange, Weird, Hilarious, Polarizing.

It may sound dark, but I actively campaigned internally against benevolent marketing campaigns. They almost always fail. For example, at the end of 2019, the campaign did these things called Humanity First weekends to generate press by sending our volunteers in mass to help charities. Despite nearly thousands of people helping out, we generated zero press. I swear to you. Not one media hit!

For these reasons, our marginally original, far too benevolent, mostly a platitude slogan was a flop in my eyes. We can categorize this failure as a struggle to define our product and find our audience.

GOOGLE ANDREW YANG: The Desperate Trough of Sorrow

In August of 2018, I was sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park, New York City. I was with my then-girlfriend, spacing out on our date, as my mind obsessed over the central problem of slogans: maintaining message fidelity. Or, how do you take a complex message and bring it to less informed people on a massive scale?

This problem in marketing can be further conceptualized by acknowledging the frequent inversion we see between audience size and message size. Often, as you reach more people, you have less space to say what you want. This is because the farther away from your core audience you go, the deeper you end up in audiences who don’t care that much about you. A slogan is the end of the road manifestation of this task — How can we begin raising awareness and associations with people who will only give us three words?

This was a particularly difficult problem for Andrew Yang, Zach Graumann, our Campaign Manager, and myself, our marketing guy. Andrew Yang was a guy arguing for free money based on an impending software takeover of the labor market (this was his actual message). Not only did he have to convince you that the takeover was happening and that free money, a fundamentally unamerican idea, was a good one, but he also had to explain to you who he was AND prove how not crazy he was.

This is an outrageous task by every marketing standard because you have crazy ideas coming from a dude with low public credibility. In other words, the crazy ideas will put people off, but so will his lack of notoriety. For a marketer, you effectively have nothing to work with.

Take into consideration these messaging angles we tried and the common reactions we received. The scenario is someone is walking by a poster board, and the flyer says this to create interest:

Hey, this no-name guy is running for president on free money.

  • Yeah, right.

Hey, robots are coming. Watch out. This random Asian guy will let you know.

  • What? I have work.

Hey, this Obama guy is running for president and is a new type of leader.

  • Whatever.

Hey, this smart guy is running for president and has good ideas.

  • *so boring they don’t even notice*

These examples are obviously watered down, but the point is illustrated. Yang was either a nobody loser you ignored, or he sounded crazy.

What frustrated our team most was that, after one hour of Yang explaining himself, you suddenly realized he was experienced and totally brilliant.

This is exactly what I was thinking about when I had a lightbulb moment that day in Washington Square Park.

“If only,” I thought, “if only there was a way to get people to Google him. Then they would discover all of his content, and we would convert everyone.”

Then it hit me — “Google Andrew Yang.”

I looked at my then-girlfriend and said, “Oh my god. I just figured it out.” The moment was euphoric. A light bulb moment I’d never felt before.

I monologued to my girlfriend my idea and concluded astutely, despite Yang being completely irrelevant, “This slogan will be all over the country one day. This is going to be on billboards.”

I am most grateful because I was right. That fall 2018, we printed all of our marketing graphics with this slogan during the campaign’s Humanity First Tour. The slogan caught on, and over the entirety of the campaign, our grassroots supporters plastered the slogan all over the country.

My favorite part about this slogan (and yes, I categorize it as a slogan) is that it well-delivers on the challenges of slogan building I’ve outlined. 1) It’s aligned with the message (Yang being tech-knowledgeable), 2) it’s three words, 3) it’s completely original, 4) a huge bonus, it’s a call to action, 5) 66% of the slogan is literally the name of the product we’re selling. Finding three words in any language that are so dynamic is rare.

The success of Google Andrew Yang was only the beginning, representing the second phase of a startup phase — scrappy, creative thinking.

MATH: Finding Your Breakout Niche

One afternoon in late 2018, the team was in the office filming some Facebook advertisements with Yang. In one of the advertisements, we were having Yang end with his famous line, “And the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes MATH.”

After a few takes, Yang, ever playful, ended by chanting MATH.

Like this, “And the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes MATH …, and I like MATH … MATH MATH MATH … USA USA USA … MATH all day.”

The moment Yang said MATH three times in a row, under no direction of my conscious mind, my brain began imagining a world where Yang was riding around the country, rallying millions around the idea of mathematics.

I stopped immediately and said, “DUDE … if we really get troll and populist … we should create shirts that just say MATH.”

Without hesitation, Zach jumped in, “It’s really the perfect phrase.”

“It’s so fucking funny; imagine people holding signs that say MATH at a rally,” I said.

“We should get some MATH signs! People will hold them up,” Zach said.

“Do it. Do it. Do it!” I chanted.

By the incredibly good fortune of the moment, the conversation is caught on video. You can watch it here.

The incredible part about MATH that Zach Graumann and I frequently talk about is that there was no focus group. There was no testing. Within 30 seconds of thinking of the idea, our team was sold with absolute conviction that the slogan would be a hit. And we were right. Compare this to our ambivalence with Humanity First and the relative success between the slogans.

Not everyone was sold on MATH as the beginning, which is typical for anything exciting or unorthodox in life. In early 2019, a friend of mine texted me asking me why we had just launched hats that said MATH. He said it was confusing, it wasn’t a slogan, and that it was “such a simple word that it won’t link it to a campaign.”

What I explained to my friend that day over text was that MATH represented an entire ideology.

“It’s part of the brand of being fact-driven, honest by the data, and motivated to end the partisan politics. Americans feel that our current leaders are spiteful performers who vote against good ideas because it will give the other team a point. This has led to the disenfranchisement of millions who feel that politicians should support what is proven to work. MATH is a symbol of what is missing from the government.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “but it’s still not a slogan. People aren’t going to get excited about mathematics.”

“We are transforming what MATH means. It’s not just a STEM field; it’s a rallying cry that symbolizes the ideology I mentioned. It’s going to blow up because it’s absurd, which is great for marketing. The absurdity of it prompts media coverage. The absurdity of it prompts people to stop and ask why you are wearing MATH. It’s so unorthodox to wear a hat that says a stem field that you can’t help but be curious. I can promise you, by 2020, MATH will be an Andrew Yang word. It will be in fashion magazines.”

If we map the slogan MATH to the three slogan challenges mentioned, we find this:

  1. We captured Yang’s true message and essence entirely
  2. It’s one word
  3. It’s extremely original

MATH boiled down Yang’s entire message (keeping message fidelity high) into one word while remaining original. I will dream of creating such a perfect slogan again.

It should go without saying that MATH was a dramatic success. What I always find most emblematic of what we pulled off with MATH is that many folks in the #YangGang often confessed to me they didn’t even like mathematics. Instead, they wore and chanted MATH because of what it represented, the ideology behind it.

MATH was the manifestation of our campaign finding our breakout niche audience. Referring to the product adoption curve, this was the slogan apt for our Early-Adopters: tech people and the politically disenchanted. With Humanity First, we learned that everyone in politics postures as benevolent, so the do-gooder market was saturated. We were undifferentiated. By leaning into the MATH ideology, we differentiated ourselves amongst a hungry constituency that gave us the audience to exert collective influence on the election.

A few caveats here.

First, MATH was not originally meant to an acronym. When we launched the hat, it meant mathematics. Soon, because the letters were in all caps, people thought it was an acronym. They came up with ideas, and Yang, for some reason, latched onto Make America Think Harder. I couldn’t have hated this deviation any more than I did. I fought Make America Think Harder to the death. There is a reason you never saw MATH spelled out in our campaign’s marketing materials or merchandise. MATH was original, Make America Think Harder is letting Trump set the tone, and being reactive, both of which mean you’re a loser in politics. Also, who the hell wants to wear Make America Think Harder? Don’t get me started on this!

Second, the MATH hat was never about Yang being Asian, not consciously at least. Though the slogan was catalyzed by Yang’s Asian/MATH expression, I always viewed them as separate, and so did the team. It was more like, “Yes, data is good governing!” rather than, “Yes, haha, Asian guy, math!” That said, I study psychology a lot and recognize the unconscious manifestations humans make. Also, Yang’s Asian jokes didn’t help this.

Third, I couldn’t believe the number of people who said MATH should have been MATHS to be technically correct. If you’re a marketer, never listen to that sort of stupid thinking. If the hat said MATHS, it would have been confusing and a disaster. We were marketing to the mainstream, not Harvard.

A NEW WAY FORWARD: Empty Words Accessible to All

By the fall of 2019, our campaign had plateaued. The MATH ideology had pushed us into 7th as we polled 3–4% on average, but we had been stuck there for months. This was when the campaign had an identity crisis. There are two approaches at this inflection point for companies.

  1. Stick to your identity and believe your next breakthrough is coming
  2. Recognize you are marketing to a new audience, and you must adjust your image

There is no right answer. Trump rode MAGA, obscene masculinity, and covert racism from 3% all the way to the White House and beyond. Meanwhile, people love to say, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

Given that none of us really knew what we were doing, we opted to hire consultants and become more professional and mainstream. This was probably the right move.

One of the ways we sought to professionalize was by adjusting the message of the campaign. On this, I believe we mostly failed to execute, but that’s an article for another day.

One manifestation of our new message was to make a new slogan that was accessible to the whole mainstream of the Democratic Party. The consultants we hired for this had an incredible and deep political pedigree. They spent a few weeks crafting the slogan and what they came up with was, “A NEW WAY FORWARD.”

This slogan might mean something to you now, but when it was first conceived, it was a totally empty and meaningless platitude to pretty much everyone who heard it. In the meeting, it was presented, someone literally said, “it means nothing.”

To which the consultants said, “exactly!”

You might think I’m joking, but I’m not. What’s shocking, they even made a compelling case for why they had intentionally designed the slogan to mean nothing.

The argument was that Yang now had enough social influence that he could give words and expressions meaning. A New Way Forward was an empty phrase that could be infused with the exact vision and image that Andrew Yang wanted to give it. There was no historical constraint around the meaning of the expression.

I thought this was actually pretty insightful. MATH had been a good slogan because it inherently meant something to people. By associating with that word and its historical meaning, the word gave us meaning when we were irrelevant and insignificant. In contrast, with A New Way Forward, we were in control. We meant something, and the word did not.

Despite the compelling pitch, I thought the slogan failed. The slogan succeeded at being a few words, but it wasn’t original, nor did it have a clear message. Given what the consultants shared, if we infused the slogan with the right meaning, it could have been original. This gets us to the central problem at the end of the campaign, though, which is that we never really nailed down a clear or compelling mainstream message.

My analysis of the success of this slogan is clear even to this date. Yang is running for mayor right now, and MATH hats abound in great quantity, but old merchandise with A New Way Forward remains sparse.

This last stage of slogan development here represents the Early-Majority in the product adoption curve.

In my view, even though we failed at execution with A New Way Forward, I find the strategy compelling. Platitudes can be acceptable, but only if you have big clout and the slogan is so generic and empty that you actually cause it to sound original. Something inherently original, of course, is never ruled out.

This concludes my totally imperfect discussion on slogans. Much more could be said on this, but I’m not out to make my career as the slogan expert. This is simply a view into the thinking and development behind some slogans.

There is one last extremely important point. How you actually market and launch your slogan is essential. For example, the MATH hat didn’t become the centerpiece of the campaign by accident.

How to effectively brand and roll out messages will be one of my future articles.

Until then, goodbye, friends!



Advocating for well-being and mental health through politics ~~~ Past: #2 hire/Director of MKTG Andrew Yang 2020 Presidential

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Andrew Frawley

Advocating for well-being and mental health through politics ~~~ Past: #2 hire/Director of MKTG Andrew Yang 2020 Presidential