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Selling a presidency

26 Jun 2011

As 2012 draws closer and we begin to watch who is going to run against President Barack Obama, it’s interesting to think of all the candidates as brands.

After all, nobody was better than Obama at doing a fully integrated marketing campaign, complete with social media and an iconic poster. And then “Yes we can,” the slogan that made us believe. Obama was selling, and we were buying. He pretty much set the bar for how to market a winning campaign and position oneself as a brand. The campaign even won two top honors at the Cannes Lions. Plouffe and Axelrod became the modern-day Chiat and Clow—different world, same level of precise creative genius and executional excellence.

The 2012 US presidential election, like all others, will be all about resonating with voters and their values, but think of this under the lens of brands. Today, brands are in service of their consumers—and in order to be successful, brands must showcase values and beliefs that are aligned (or perceived to be aligned) with those we think are good for our communities and the world. And much like today’s brands, each candidate will be under that ever-looming notion of transparency. Think of Weinergate: A leave of absence and therapy was not enough to salvage the congressman’s reputation after lying or his status as a public servant (it will be interesting to see how he fares as a husband and father).

Obama’s challengers in 2012 will be more inspected than mitochondria in biology class, so it’s best for them to come clean now with anything they are trying to hide. (Hey, Newt, what’s with the huge bill—or is it a line of credit—at Tiffany’s?) Among other reasons Mitt Romney might sit in front of the pack is the perception that we have scrutinized him and he is the grown-up brand, a well-aged scotch who’s right for these times.

Last week, we found out that more than 24,000 emails from Sarah Palin (aka Caribou Barbie, a term coined by the director of a soon-to-be released documentary of her) were released by the state of Alaska. True, they have not revealed anything inflammatory yet (although it was interesting to discover that good old Newt had sent her some PR counsel on the campaign trail the last go-round). But her classic gaffes along her bus tour are fodder for message boards and social media stalwarts everywhere. Like all brands today, every step these candidates take and every word they say will be interpreted by a society hungry for commentary. So it’s wise for them all to brush up on their history, or anything else that will likely be lambasted on a late-night talk show or Facebook post.

Regardless of gaffes or the digging up of past indiscretions, the 2012 candidates are going to be hitting hard on issues such as the economy and the sluggish growth of jobs. Like the best marketers, candidates Bachmann, Santorum, Romney and others will no doubt identify what is of most concern to American voters. This election is going to be not so much about issues popular with social conservatives (the cases against gay marriage and abortion) as it will be about how to get America working again and prosperous. Hope and change have been replaced by a more reality-based sell of a “roll up our sleeves” approach to fixing and restoring this American life and getting back to work.

And speaking of hope and change, a recent USA Today article pointed out that 36 percent of people in a recent poll said “Obama has been a weaker leader in the White House than they expected; 21 percent a stronger one”—better than before his big win with the killing of Osama bin Laden, where we got to see an intense-looking Obama in the crisis room looking more presidential than ever. But this particular poll also showed that 37 percent of Americans feel disappointed by his lack of leadership on the issue they care most about: the economy. Or maybe they’re disappointed by his lack of brand.

In the same USA Today article, consultant Jonathan Salem Baskin, the author of Branding Only Works on Cattle, points out that although Obama’s 2008 brand was “brilliant,” our president “lost control of his brand when he took office.” According to Baskin, Obama “didn’t tell people what he stood for and what he was going to do.” And because he stood so clearly for change in 2008, he’s got to be careful this time around, as “change” could very well mean his exit from the White House.

Regardless of who wins and whether Caribou Barbie rides on a Harley into another small town (her strategy of getting hyperlocal is admittedly on point), it’s going to take more than an iconic poster from the latest artist to sway voters. Like successful brands, the candidates in the next election will have to be very up front about what they stand for, be fully transparent and incorporate a 360-degree approach to their marketing efforts, which must tell a story to voters about their core values.

True, politicians might not be quite as disposable as the latest iPad, but they are going to have to stand for something (in Apple’s case it has always been creativity) in order for voters to be in a “spending” mood.

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