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As two women compete for Boston mayor in historic race, it’s purple vs. pink

Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A hot pink billboard winking off the side of I-93; an 8-foot purple sign clutched in union members’ hands. The ubiquitous lawn signs, fuchsia and eggplant on Dorchester porches and Allston lawns, and the unapologetic shades saturating everything from the bright socks of campaign staff to the hair bands and infant onesies of the candidates’ most ardent supporters.

As Boston races toward a historic Nov. 2 mayoral election, the streets are awash in color, and the battle lines are clear: It’s purple versus pink.

The hues — Benjamin Moore’s “Hot Lips” pink for Annissa Essaibi George, a warm purple for front-runner Michelle Wu — are an instant visual reminder that a city that has always elected white men to City Hall is about to make history. And they position Essaibi George and Wu within a growing tradition of women politicians and candidates of color who are rejecting traditional political styling in favor of punchy, bright logos that reflect their personalities.

Campaign signs of Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff, Michael Dwyer/AP

“Instead of trying to fit into an outdated template that was built for men, women are running unapologetically as themselves,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which is focused on advancing women’s representation in American politics. “Whoever is elected will be the first woman, the first person of color, and the first mother elected to the mayor’s office. And it seems in line with all of that trailblazing that both women have branding that is outside the conventional norm.”

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Red, white, and blue are the traditional colors of US political campaigns, with the occasional green thrown in, too. But there is a long tradition of “nontraditional” candidates rejecting those shades. Look no further than Shirley Chisholm and the legendary yellow button she wore in her historic 1972 bid for president.

Kamala Harris waved during a rally launching her presidential campaign in 2019.NOAH BERGER/AFP via Getty Images

In recent years, political design experts say, women candidates and candidates of color have embraced less traditional color and logo schemes, emblematic of a new era in politics that looks very different from the old. Consider the branding of Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign — purple, red, yellow — or the diagonal letters slicing across the logo of progressive darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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FILE -- A campaign poster depicting then-candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is displayed at her victory celebration in the Bronx following her win in the Democratic congressional primary on June 26, 2018. Political designers say Ocasio-Cortez's campaign logo has come to convey insurgency, youth, diversity and liberalism. (David Dee Delgado/The New York Times)DAVID DEE DELGADO/NYT

It stands to reason that candidates who don’t look like the white male political leaders of yore wouldn’t want their signs to look that way, either, experts said.

“It used to be women and people of color tried to fit more into the mold for the most part,” said Susan Merriam, cofounder of the Center for American Politics and Design. Now, she said, “people are realizing there’s an asset in being visually different.”

During this year’s preliminary election, the signs were a veritable rainbow: purple and orange for Acting Mayor Kim Janey, navy and cyan for City Councilor Andrea Campbell, blues and greens for John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief.

Now, the field has narrowed to a pair of traditionally feminine shades.

Signs were everywhere for the preliminary election in September.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

For each contender, the color scheme is a long-held position.

Both Wu and Essaibi George committed to their respective colors in their first runs for City Council. And each used the shade in her small business.

Wu’s tea shop, launched in the late aughts in Chicago, had purple and green walls (the combination may sound like it would clash, but Wu swears it did not). When it came time to run for political office, Wu opted for purple, “a color that I thought reflected my personality, and that I liked,” she said.

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It wasn’t an explicit nod to gender. But when she ran in 2013 — her victory ultimately doubled the number of women serving on the council from one to two — gender was impossible to ignore, she said. After Wu won, she chose green for the walls of her office.

Essaibi George, for her part, has been committed to bright pink for decades, selecting a pair of hot pink heels for formal swearings-in and high-stakes political debates, and often appearing in jackets, blouses, jewelry, and masks in the shade that has become her signature. She chose the color for the bridesmaid dresses in her wedding, which she sewed herself, as well as for the walls of her City Hall office. Essaibi George’s yarn shop, the Stitch House in Dorchester, is branded the same shade, and its supply of hot pink yarn has never been depleted, even during the run on the product in 2017, when hundreds of thousands of women wore knit cat-eared “pussy hats” in a rebuke to then-president Donald Trump.

Essaibi George acknowledged that it’s “not a ballet, delicate, pretty pink, it is a strong color” — one that “speaks to me as a candidate.”

“I’ve had people over the years — different campaign staff and consultants — come in and try to shift the pink, soften the tone of the pink, and I go, ‘Nope!’ ” she added. “I am looking to send a message by using such a strong and vibrant and unusual color.”

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Annissa Essaibi George walked on stage in front of a cheering crowd at her primary election night party.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

“But also, I like the color,” she said, laughing. “If I’m gonna look at these damn signs . . .”

It’s not just the shades that signal what kind of mayors these candidates would be. The logos and branding strategies also reflect their differing styles, design experts said.

Essaibi George’s logo, sans serif type arranged in a neat rectangle with a row of stars, looks highly traditional. But for its pink and black color scheme, design analysts said, it could be a Boston mayor’s sign from decades ago.

In some ways, that’s in line with Essaibi George’s candidacy — the more traditional of the two, and carrying appeal with the city’s most historically reliable voters, in more conservative and white neighborhoods like South Boston and parts of Dorchester. Essaibi George is running a campaign similar to that of former mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Wu, on the other hand, has adopted some of the same design elements as the country’s most prominent progressives — her hand-written last name suggesting a casual cool, the exclamation point following it reminiscent of the one placed in branding materials for Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and the purple and mint color scheme strikingly similar to that of Representative Ayanna Pressley, the Boston Democrat whose coveted endorsement Wu secured for the general election. Wu’s website offers a “grassroots toolkit” where supporters can generate their own graphics, and download patterns to create everything from a Wu!-branded tote bag to a knit beanie, all in the campaign’s precise color scheme (dark purple, medium purple, lavender, coral, emerald, and mint — detailed color codes provided).

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That approach, too, is in line with a Wu campaign that prides itself on being more bottom-up than top-down, strategists said.

Michelle Wu celebrated in Roslindale on the night of the preliminary election.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“We want them to take the brand, take the campaign, make it their own — and feel like they’re actually participating in it,” said Paulina Mangubat, the Wu campaign’s digital and creative director. “The entire campaign has had such a great distributive organizing model, with supporters really being able to take ownership.”

Ashleigh Axios, who served as creative director and a digital strategist for the Obama White House, said Essaibi George’s branding has a “very traditional local election feel to it. So it really needs that pink to modernize it and give it a little bit of a flair.”

Wu, by contrast, is “flipping the script a little bit. . . . It’s a call for people to participate,” she said.

In each case, Axios added, “it speaks to how they’ll lead.”

Those competing color schemes and designs were on full display earlier this month as pink-clad Essaibi George supporters and purple sign-wielding Wu fans lined both sides of Soldiers Field Road in Allston ahead of the first televised general election debate.

“I’ve got my purple on, so you know what time it is,” Tony Brewer shouted into a megaphone, standing in the road’s grassy median in a purple jacket. “Can I get a Wu Wu?”

A few feet over, an Essaibi George supporter wearing a neon pink polo shirt beamed: “Real men wear pink!”

Beside him, 22-year-old Maeghan Driscoll of Dorchester wore a hot pink crop top, pink extensions clipped into her dark hair — all in support of Essaibi George.

“It’s a nice symbol of some girl power in the city,” she said.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her @emmaplatoff.