Brand filtered politics ~ Brand Mix

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Brand filtered politics

Just before Super Tuesday, Allen Adamson, a colleague of mine at Landor and author of the book Brand Simple, chose Barack Obama and John McCain as the lead candidates of their respective parties in the "battle of the brands."

He argued that both of these two candidates had clear and consistent positioning and a well-defined brand idea. One week later, John McCain is almost certainly going to be the Republican nomination and Barack Obama is moving ahead in the Democatic race. So there!

Whether branding has great predictive power or not, it's interesting (to me at least) to look at this year's primaries through a brand filter. For example:

Clarity: This was Allen's point. Barack Obama has a clear, well-defined message around change, backed up by his young age and limited Washington experience. He's the "Pepsi" candidate. John McCain is the "Coke" candidate, a classic hero all about experience and authenticity. Hillary Clinton is somewhere in the middle, a bad place to be.

Relevance and Differentiation: You don't get too far being a niche brand in politics. Candidates like Ron Paul attract fanatical but limited support. But as candidates try and appeal to the mainstream, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to keep all their different constituents happy and still maintain a coherent vision. The candidates that are doing the best this time around have succeeded in taking their brand to a higher level so it can stretch across different constituencies. (Apparently Obama is attracting support from some evangelical groups, usually a Republican lock).

Reliability: John McCain has a strong reputation for sticking to his guns even when his point of view is unpopular. That's one of his strengths but it's also what's making it difficult for him to win over the conservative wing of his party. The problem is that it's "his" guns not theirs. Although he has, in fact, got a strong conservative voting record, he has not followed the line in some touchstone issues like immigration and tax cuts. That makes him unreliable to this constituency, a necessary and core brand attribute for a politician.

Authenticity: How can a governor of a blue state who used to be gay-friendly and pro-choice position himself as the conservative choice? It turns out, he can't. Mitt Romney strategically calculated that there was a gap in the market (in the field of candidates) for someone on the conservative part of the spectrum. This may or may not have been the right assessment but, even if it was, he was not credible in that space and his new-found social conservatism seemed opportunistic. Iowan voters preferred the authenticity of Mike Huckabee and that started the unraveling of the Romney campaign.

Money's limits: If your brand story is not working no amount of money will help. That's like pouring money into an advertising campaign for a product that no one wants. Romney had the money but never had the message.

So, if it's McCain vs. Obama, as Allen predicts, who's going to win? Two clear brand positionings. Two strong candidates.

That's where environmental and situational factors will kick in. If the economy stays weak, the Iraq war doesn't improve, Obama's change message will continue to resonate. If there's unexpected world turmoil perhaps McCain's experience will become the driving factor. If either candidate screws up in a big way, that may tip the result. Or maybe one candidate manage to successfully reposition and undermine the other (think Swift boats)? What can Florida come up with this time?

Branding can tell you some things but, fortunately, not everything.

1) Stuck in the middle with you: Why Hillary Clinton needs a brand alignment before Super Tuesday: Brand Simple
2) Mitt Romney throws in the towel: The Economist
3) The importance of focus and differentiation: Branding Strategy Insider

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