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Clinton, Obama, and the Marketing of Experience

It doesn’t appear to be working. Senator Clinton has built her presidential brand on the value of experience and the implicit – and sometimes explicit – risk of the new and untested. But the hunger in the gut that voters feel for change and a fresh start appear to be not just neutralizing, but also trumping, the reassuring heft of the resume.

It doesn’t appear to be working.

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Senator Clinton has built her presidential brand on the value of experience and the implicit – and sometimes explicit – risk of the new and untested. But the hunger in the gut that voters feel for change and a fresh start appear to be not just neutralizing, but also trumping, the reassuring heft of the resume.

This phenomenon started with younger voters, who naturally were tapped into the message that years of experience should be taken with a grain of salt. But based on Senator Obama’s landslide victories last night, the message is gaining broader traction, as even voters over 60 – the most experience-mad of all – made a dramatic move to his column.

Both the origins and implications of the slow decay of the value of experience go way beyond presidential politics.  In the Land of Branding, experience has always been a sword with two edges. Depending upon the mood of the consumer, historicity could be a benefit – in times of uncertainty, there’s comfort in endurance. You trust the survivor, in a fearful, Darwinian way.But in times that are buoyed by a sense of possibility and optimism, new ideas and concepts – and the companies that embody them – are triumphant. Dopamine flows and different reward systems in the brain are triggered.

Over the last few years, we’ve been in a sustained period where experience means less and less. The reasons for that are all around us. It’s brands like Apple and Lexus and Google and Amazon that represent the best of what we can do.

Meanwhile, of the $100 billion of worthless subprime loans were issued by venerable financial services firms, whose lobbies boast oil paintings of now-dead founders (who were pretty stiff in those portraits as well.)

Whatever intangibles were represented by “experience” – at best a communal set of values passed down from the founders through the self-perpetuating culture of the organization – have been trashed and thrashed by avidity for cupidity.

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Established, experienced names like IBM and General Motors have had long and difficult struggles for relevance, leading consumers to believe that when a company has been around for a long time, like cheese in the refrigerator, it begins to stink.  So experience becomes the dread doppelganger of over-confidence, stale thinking, idea squashing, status-quo-ism at its most sclerotic.

So a brand rich in history, like Burberry, needs to turn its history into irony – by literally turning its lining and its past inside out – to remain attractive to consumers. Just as Budweiser, who used to treat its Clydesdales in a reverential and gauzy way, now uses them as post-modern quotes to show the brand is cool enough to detach from its own autobiography.

The times ahead are going to be challenging for marketers as they work towards a new calculus that re-defines the notions of experience and history.Because just as it’s a mistake to think that “Trusted for over 100 years” is a claim that’s going to motivate anybody, it’s also a mistake to think that the values of the past don’t matter. Senator Obama is succeeding, in large part, precisely because his message calls upon us to re-connect with deeply American values and lower-case spirituality. He told the young people in the audience last night in Wisconsin that the government should pay for a portion of their education, but only in return for government service. And he also reminded parent of their responsibility: “Turn off the TV” he said.

So what’s the immediate lesson: Separate the lessons of the past from the past itself. The brands that will succeed are those that speak with a fresh and inspiring voice of present challenges and ancient truths.

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About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies

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