Political Branding

To avoid partisan potshots, I disclose in advance that I am neither a Republican nor Democrat, nor could I be classified as a liberal or conservative. Thus my following analysis is one purely aimed at examining how brands work in presidential politics.

In other words, don’t bother commenting if the analysis annoys your personal partisan political peccadilloes. This is about marketing and not the mayhem of presidential elections.

Much has been written in the last year about the destruction of the Republican “brand”. A brand — be it for a PC, politician, or even a PC politician — is what the market (voters) think and feel about the product. Yes, politicians and parties are products that can be bought though the price is too high for the average consumer/voter.

Many Republicans felt their party no longer had a brand. Many core Republican/conservative policies appear to have been abandoned by the Bush administration. Translate this into a technology product that had for many years delivered on the core features and functions it promised to provide. Then say that the new release of the product had massive bugs that the vendor did not fix that diminished or eliminated the usefulness of those features. Some GOP members viewed their party as Windows XP users view Vista – failing to faithfully deliver fundamental value.

This is where belief systems enter into marketing. People often believe things about a brand that are not true. But when faced with continuing failure to deliver on a branded value proposition, people quit believing in the brand. In this election cycle we see two brand battles raging. The GOP had lost its brand and is now actively redefining/reclaiming it.

Let’s look at each starting with the Democrats. Obama — like any candidate — needs to keep the trust of all classes of people. He set forth a brand which spoke broadly and elicited an amazing amount of response for a candidate with relatively little history. Bowling badly or making three-point buckets spoke well to the working classes who hold the keys to certain battleground states. But Obama’s “guns and religion” statement while raising funds in a San Francisco “Billionaire Row” mansion shattered that believability and damaged his brand value in those markets. Blue collar and Blue Dog Democrats indicate they may sit out this election based on brand misalignment. His selection of Biden did nothing to help regain those voters.

McCain’s team managed to something that any marketing strategist would love to achieve. They managed to find a brand and value proposition that was broadly popular, that matched the existing brand essence of the candidate, and located a running mate who brought additional authenticity (real or imagined) to the new brand. In other words, GOP marketing strategists scored a trifecta on brand management.

Let’s circle back to the Silicon Strategies Marketing copyrighted definition of a brand: a brand is what the market thinks and feels about your product. McCain had for years developed a reputation as both a maverick and a reformer. In fact the media made so much of this McCain value proposition that it became “knowledge” instead of “belief” among most Americans. The market of voters thus “thought” McCain to be a reformer. Adding Palin to the ticket — exploiting her highly personal “small town, common sense” brand — emotionally reinforced the ticket’s reformer brand. GOP strategist realigned the original “small government” GOP brand to the existing McCain/Palin brands. Then they used this to co-opt Obama’s “change” brand, simultaneously strengthening the GOP brand and weakening the Obama brand.

Polls indicate the plan worked very well.

Obama can only counter this in two ways:

  • Try to destroy the McCain brand, which can only be done through negative attacks. This is a bad move because Obama based much of his brand on being a nice guy, rising above “politics as usual”. Going negative would be to destroy his own brand.
  • Create a more authentic Obama brand: This is tough because many of the mistakes his campaign made (hijacking the presidential seal, mass rallies in Berlin, the “guns and religion” sound bite) has reduced the public perception that Obama is “authentic”. Even San Francisco’s eccentric former Mayor Willie Brown — a Democrat to the end — thinks “Obama still appears overscripted. Too perfect.

Here are the basic branding lessons to learn from this year’s election cycle:

  1. Be faithful to your brand: The Republican’s learned the hard way that the moment you stop “walking the walk” buyers/voters vanish. The GOP got lucky in finding a new brand that worked in the 11th hour.
  2. Do not invent a brand that is not authentic: Obama learned that you cannot talk “small town” in Scranton then disrespect “small town” in San Francisco.
  3. Represent your brand at every touch point: You receptionist should reinforce your brand. McCain picked a running mate that reinforced his.

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