Choosing a Political Brand

I just read Danielle Sacks’ post on Europeans Hearting Obama, which stirred me into a heartfelt response of my own…

When you think about it, Barack Obama, the human being, is in many ways the polar opposite of President Bush—some differences more apparent than others. So it should be of no surprise that Europeans and Americans alike (mind you Bush is currently enjoying a 71% disapproval rating in the U.S., according to CNN) who are disenchanted with the Bush brand should find Obama to be such an inspiring candidate. For both Europeans and now Americans, the Bush brand is about as cool as Microsoft. Obama, on the other hand, is the Apple of the public’s eye. Listening to Obama's public—and web inspired—rhetoric, it is clear that Bush has become the avatar for an antiquated (and arguably corrupt) version of Politics. Few outside the U.S.—in my experience—would disagree. For many, this administration has come to represent Web 1.0 and is truly beta in the way it has sought to promote a business community that is receptive, or open, to fundamental innovation and progress.

I think there are probably quite a few Americans who, when traveling abroad, have ended up feeling embarrassed by the nearly universal anti-American sentiment provoked by this administration, not to mention the vicarious obligation Americans now feel to ensure these (often angry) international citizens that not every American is a cowboy/has an aversion to alternative energy paradigms. And therefore it becomes, I think, essential for Americans to consider how the rest of the world might vote in our election, especially now that Obama has permanently altered the way politicians run their campaigns. Imagine the following Obama could garner were he to start using his New Media-grassroots strategy on the international community, and imagine starting the Iraq war all over again (I said imagine) with a coalition of the willing. Truly, he is all the more successful when he motivates us to imagine possibility—especially this possibility—or our potential to move forward from here, to skip arm-in-arm toward a better tomorrow.

But forget "hope-mongering", successful branding frequently takes advantage of our belief in possibility. It doesn’t have to go negative. Consider this: Ellen McGirt suggests in her article on the "Brand of Obama" that Obama's success is primarily attributable to his "openness"—his "openness to the way consumers communicate with each other today". "Openness" today is a very germane word, as Americans are eager for an administration open to possibility, to change and innovation, especially considering the popular view of the current administration as a bunch of calcified squares. America wants a polygon. So, thinking about the new, integrated, web-savvy world just around the corner, whose brand would you choose?

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  • Rip Empson


    Thank you for calling me out. What I say is often off-base, so I welcome the dialogue. Rest assured, I would say that there is no one who votes in a national election based on anything other than self-interest. I really don't expect Americans to vote based on international opinion, for it is far too diverse and nuanced to ever know a real consensus--not to mention that there are Americans who think Africa is a country. You're right, the plurality of opinion, culture, ethics, etc. across international borders is infinite and obviously, here in the U.S. it is the same... the important campaign issues for me will undoubtedly be different than those that are important to you. However, that being said, I would like to think that Americans would CONSIDER how adept a candidate might be at raising a global coalition, for example, or interpreting a global dialogue, or learning how other countries sort through social, political, and economic issues that apply not just locally, but universally. A president who might be able to talk about relativism, pluralism, consensus, comprehensive doctrines--it would be a welcome change from the intellectually curious-less present. Selfishly, I'd like to see a candidate that will encourage innovation--that has gained the respect of the international community through peddling progress.
    I definitely shouldn't attempt to speak for other Americans, I was just trying to identify (or encourage) a trend I'd noticed. You're right, voting for a president isn't a popularity contest, it's not American Idol, its about things like how easily, in a time of chaos, that a candidate could turn elsewhere in the world for help and support. It's about how we can use global thinking to fix our natural resources...
    shouldn't we at least start TRYING to learn about communist/democratic blends, shouldn't we try to think less about ourselves?

  • Marianne Bellotti

    "And therefore it becomes, I think, essential for Americans to consider how the rest of the world might vote in our election, especially now that Obama has permanently altered the way politicians run their campaigns."

    With all due respects, as an American who has lived and worked abroad for many years on three different continents, statements like these couldn't be more annoying and more off base. The American people should absolutely NOT be considering how the rest of the world would vote in our elections. Citizens of foreign countries have about the same level of understanding about American politics and the various campaign issues as the average America has about political parties in France, the blend of Communism and Democracy in Eastern Europe, the role of the Emperor in Japan's government, or the logistics of elections in Africa. Their opinions of American candidates are based on the most shallow information, stereotypes and often misinformation. This is understandable: it's not their country. Though the United States may have a hand in everything right now, there are still many more levels of local government and issues that have a far greater impact on their day to days.

    I can't think of a WORSE way to vote than trying to win an imaginary popularity contest with the rest of the world. A world which, in case you haven't noticed, is far from having a uniform opinion about anything. This notion of "universal anti-American sentiment" is a gross generalization that comes from assuming that the loudest opinion is the public consensus. In order to have a healthy democracy, voting needs to be an informed and educated choice, not based on the whims of spectators who live outside our borders.

  • Rip Empson


    Thank you for your response. I would tend to agree with you: candidates are transitive, while a brand (at least a good one) tends to inspire longevity. A brand is something that one builds or acquires over time, after the accumulation of intangibles, the implementing of policy, the changing of history, as viewers watch the candidate play out a public vs. private self (IF there is a private self in politics).
    Though Barack Obama is young and relatively inexperienced, the way that he has conducted his marketing strategy is unprecedented. He has changed, permanently, the way politicians fund their campaigns and get in touch with the Youth Vote. Young voters haven't been this motivated in years. I see changes taking place that seem to forecast a potential paradigm shift--the perfect ground for the birth of a brand, right?
    Barack has been able to fluidly embrace Web marketing (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) unlike any candidate in history. Certainly, other candidates have been heavily marketed (like Reagan, and every president since Nixon), but to young people Obama is beginning to symbolize a type of brand, and that brand is one that embraces new technology, social networking, progress, and intervonnectivity.

  • Toni White

    If you liked this- you'll love

    I Knew Jack Kennedy
    and You’re No Brand !
    Written by Leslie Singer
    President and CCO G2 Branding and Design NY

    Voter’s ears are replete with news reports betraying the media’s desire to attach brand equity to our current slate of 3 presidential candidates. Well, I have some bad news for you, the current slate of candidates have yet to promulgate any distinctive branding, not in the way say a Jack Kennedy or Ronald Reagan projects brand equity.

    Brands are iconic, they are far more than ethereal fads or trends. Jack Kennedy was the scion of a family brand, the surname was rich with iconography. Icons are about rituals, legacies, and a voice that keeps resonating long after they pass. Kennedy is about Hyannisport touch football games, hair blowing on a sailboat, PT-105, a rocking chair in the oval office, a handsome face that informs a sense of aesthetics to sensory branding. A well known womanizer, even Kennedy’s dalliances were part of the brand fabric. Kennedy’s memorable Cold War “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech is legendary, not just for the fact that his snowclone was a misstatement and actually meant ”I am a jelly donut.” Kennedy lives on as an icon in our cultural fabric – and he has been dead since 1963.

    Reagan had brand equity through and through. A Hollywood “B” movie star, he was a hero in the movies and would become a hero on the world stage. Reagan’s lifelong nickname The Gipper came from his film role as George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American. When Reagan stood up to the Soviet Union, he certainly won one for the Gipper. Without flinching, the Russians blinked, and the rest is history as the walls came tumbling down in the break up which followed. The label ‘Reaganomics’ has worked itself into our vernacular and the words ‘tear down that wall’ will live in infamy.
    And like Kennedy, Reagan had an aura of the virile American who looked good on a horse and comfortable with a gun – and unlike Kennedy even looked good on the big screen. He resonated a masculine power in his blue jeans and flannel with the love of his life on his arm. This is the stuff that icons are made of and create brands that are true.

    Today’s slate of candidates have yet to develop a brand conscience in the minds of voters. McCain certainly owns his space representing the heroism of the Viet Nam era – albeit he is not a brand. Hillary seems to permeate with a More of The Same message when compared with Obama. But neither of them are a brand. If anything, time will tell if there will be a ‘brand Clinton’. If there is, it will be in tribute to Bill - Hillary will get the residue of the label. For his part, Obama may be closer to resonating with the voters as Brand Hope. His unflinching message of Change is idealistic in a way that is fresh and new. If he stays on target and goes head to head with McCain, the articulation of Brand Hope may galvanize the American voters to land him the White House. But to call any of them a ‘brand’ is mistaking the word ‘brand’. They are ‘candidates’ – a mere moment in time on the radar screen of our political arm wrestling. They could become a brand when they accomplish things that resonate for the long term. When long past their tenure their names are used to drive home a point, or are used as a noun or stand for something that becomes culturally significant.

    If Hillary doesn’t win, her relevance will be diminished – ergo she can’t be a brand -- Same for Obama and John McCain. They are all just players as George McGovern, Ross Perot, John Kerry, John Edwards, Guliani, Biden, Romney, Dodd and hundreds of others have been. Just because you are in the news, doesn’t make you a brand. When you start changing the news you are on your way – when you fulfill a promise that change lives and impacts our culture in a way that resonates in the history books – then you are a brand. Anything less, you are a just a moment in time.