As we enter the final months of the Presidential campaign the two candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, will be deploying millions of dollars to positively "position" themselves as the man for the job. At the same time, they will be working to negatively position their opponent as not being up to the task of President.
In the classic marketing book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout define positioning this way; "Positioning starts with a product. A piece of merchandise, a service, a company, an institution, or even a person. Perhaps yourself. But positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect."
Why is positioning important and why does it work? Positioning is less about changing minds but using what is already in the prospect's mind and positioning your product in a way that is attractive to that person (and negatively positioning your competitor at the same time). This is critical because it's very difficult to change people's minds. Therefore, it's better to use what is already there and build a short, simple, and clear positioning that works to your advantage.
Why short, simple, and clear? Because for most products (and for political races) the majority of people don't spend a lot of time thinking about their selection. Also, you are competing against not only your opponent's message but against all the messages from all the other companies, institutions, and people trying to influence or sell products to your target.
For example, Audi's commercials focus on presenting itself as the hip and modern version of a high-end automobile while simultaneously positioning Mercedes-Benz as an old and dated luxury car. Audi's 2011 Super Bowl ad, Release the Hounds, illustrates their approach well. Note that Audi did not position Mercedes as sub-par; that is not believable. Instead, Audi took the idea already established in people's mind that Mercedes has long been a luxury car brand, then used that to Audi's advantage.
In the political realm, which man is elected to be President of the United States in November will in large part be determined by how effective he is at positioning himself and his opponent in the minds of both his base and independents.
In my view Obama is positioning himself as having made progress in spite of a very tough environment, hence his slogan "Forward." His message is that voters need to stick with him because his plan is working. In positioning Romney, he has tried many approaches, including Romney as 1) flip-flopper, 2) conservative who will follow the policies of Bush, 3) out of touch and rich and 4) a profit-seeking capitalist.
Romney is positioning himself as an experienced businessman who knows how to get the economy moving again. He contrasts this against an image of Obama as a nice guy but one who doesn't understand how the economy works and therefore has failed to resuscitate it.
In my opinion, Obama has a tough job positively positioning himself beyond his base to independent voters given the economy is still struggling. In many independents' minds the economic facts are already strongly implanted and will be tough to overcome. In addition, the new positioning is certainly much less inspirational and uplifting than the "Hope and Change" one he established in 2008. Therefore, Obama will have to focus heavily on positioning Romney negatively. To do so, he will need to first settle on a positioning since, while there is some overlap in the approaches tried to date, it's key to settle on one and hammer that.
I believe Romney's toughest task is quickly establishing a positive positioning of himself before Obama can implant the negative one in people's minds. He needs to prove he is a worthwhile alternative to try versus the "product" voters have already "purchased."
From a marketing perspective it will be an interesting time between now and the election to see how each candidate plays the positioning game. But make no mistake, which candidate will take the oath of office in January will be decided to a large extent on the power provided by smart positioning.
[Image: Flickr user West Point]