Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Obama and McCain as Inconsistent Brands

Talking politics is always dicey, and I debated if this was an appropriate topic for my blog, but since I often write about the importance of brand consistency (see last week's "The Value of Brand Consistency: Honda vs. Ford"), I thought exploring this issue in relation to Obama's and McCain's candidacies was pertinent (and hopefully interesting).

While Americans often express their hatred for the packaging and marketing of presidential candidates, the truth is that people often vote not as if they are selecting a world leader but like they are endorsing a brand. Most voters, when quizzed, can describe only the broadest of differences between the candidates (pro-life vs. pro-choice, for example), when in fact the platforms for most Democrat and Republican candidates are really not that different. (This is why each and every election year, there is invariably grousing about the need for a third party, as if having three reasonably similar candidates rather than two would be an improvement.)

While certain factors can sway voters' preferences for a candidate (such as years in Washington, foreign policy experience, war record, etc.), these are not the qualities that separate the winners from the losers in the voting booth. Instead, likability and trust are the "brand attributes" that often decide elections. And this is why, despite citizens' expressed distaste for candidates being positioned like a toilet tissue brand, McCain's and Obama's campaigns are working hard to convince you their guy is likable and trustworthy (and the other one isn't). And make no mistake--this is a branding effort like no other.

What I find interesting is that, in my opinion, both candidates are struggling to stick to a consistent brand message. This may be why, even though the partisans of both candidates expect otherwise, the two continue to be locked in a roughly 50-50 battle. McCain supporters don't understand why the decorated war veteran, experienced senator, and famed bi-partisan collaborator isn't picking up steam, while Obama fans find it hard to believe the candidate cannot make inroads against the war-supporting GOP candidate considering Americans' strong anti-war sentiment. I'd suggest that the reason the two brands--excuse me, candidates--aren't increasing their brand preference--excuse me, poll figures--is that they moved off the brand platform that got them here.

McCain was a famous maverick, so much so it was once speculated he might switch parties. He claims this was never a serious consideration, but the fact so many observers considered this a credible possibility speaks to McCain's bipartisanship and independence. He was famously collaborative with "liberals," helping to hammer out the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 with Democrat Russell Feingold. He also was well known for his plain-spoken and positive manner, exemplified by his Straight Talk Express tour.

This doesn't sound much like the John McCain presently campaigning, does it? In order to appeal to the conservative GOP base, he's moved the right, expressing support for Bush and a commitment to the war in Iraq. His positive disposition has been pushed aside in favor of a negative campaign that casts Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal who is more rock star than leader. And, with these ads, the once-trustworthy senator has faced substantial criticism for being less than truthful about Obama's plan for middle class taxes. Non-partisan FactCheck.org has taken McCain to task for "a continuing pattern of deceit" and "twisting tax facts about Obama," nor does the candidate fare much better on other fact-checking sites such as the St. Petersburg Times PolitiFact.com and the Washington Post's Fact Checker.

Where is the man who reached across the aisle? Who spoke "straight talk"? And who committed to a positive campaign? Candidate McCain bears little resemblance to Senator McCain; the man (and the brand) have been inconsistent.

Obama isn't doing any better. The wave that swept him from behind Edwards and Clinton and left him the presumptive candidate seems to have hit high tide. I believe this is because Obama's brand has also been inconsistent.

Barack attained national attention as an excellent orator who spoke inspirationally, passionately, and with vision. Obama appealed to people to be better and to make the country better. Though derided for being short on details and long on hope, his message of encouraging national unity for a better tomorrow struck a chord with voters. Obama seemed a man more concerned with the future of the country and prosperity for our children than he did about winning the upcoming election.

That was the Obama of spring; but here's the Obama of summer: David Plouffe, Obama's Campaign Manager, sent an email speaking about the campaign's "response ad," which paints McCain as "Washington's biggest celebrity." The ad is a negative attack ad, not created to show America what it can be, but instead is a tit-for-tat about which candidate is the bigger "celebrity." It continues a shift from Obama, the leader focused on the future, to Obama, the candidate fixated on winning the election. Obama's brand used to be focused on our future, but now it's concentrated on his.

With disappointing predictability, the two gentlemen are moving off their long-established brands and attempting to change direction in response to prevailing polls and their opponent's latest ad. Of course, as any good marketer will tell you, tactics may change rapidly, but brands should evolve only slowly over time.

The new Barack and John have voters questioning who these two really are. It is interesting to note that both candidates' favorability is down since early March, according to Gallup; McCain, whose ads and speeches have been more negative and focused on his opponent, has seen the more substantial decrease in favorability. Perhaps, after years of positively responding to negative campaigning, Americans are tired of it. (That would be nice, but I'm not betting on it.)

If either Obama or McCain returned to their straight-talking, forward-looking, non-partisan brands of six months ago, they might not be locked in a stalemate for long. Like any brand, attempting to be something different from month to month isn't being agile and focused; it just encourages confusion in the minds of consumers... er, I mean voters.

1 comment:

joshjs said...

McCain's campaign is no longer about McCain. It's about Obama. It's kind of amazing: Go watch a McCain speech. He'll talk about almost everything in terms of Obama. The reason for this, I think (and this is not an original idea), is that the only way he can win is if he makes the election a referendum on Obama. He makes himself the de facto default, and then all he has to do is create doubt about his opponent.

McCain has completely abandoned his brand. In the primaries he abandoned it by pandering, and now he's just completely ignoring the need for a brand. He's Brand X now.