It’s the eve of the 2008 presidential election, and this has been an absolutely fascinating campaign when viewed through the lens of brand positioning. I’m not writing today to endorse either candidate, but rather to offer a few thoughts about the strategies and tactics used by each.
The messaging of Barack Obama’s campaign has been remarkably consistent since its inception. The theme of “Change” – sometimes presented as “Change We Can Believe In” or “Change We Need” – is quite potent at a time when disapproval ratings for the sitting president hover around 70%. (Which is to say a large portion of the electorate is not pleased with the current Republican experience – in politics, as in branding, experience usually trumps messaging.) In other words, Obama’s campaign selected a positioning that the market clearly desires.
Strategically and tactically, Obama has led the most innovative presidential run in history. He has harnessed the internet, text messaging, and other tools, reaching young voters in a way that is comfortable to them. And he has succeeded in creating hordes of “brand champions” – the volunteers who go door-to-door, the people wearing the Change t-shirts, the people donating all that money. Clearly, he has energized a base in a manner that Kerry and Gore did not even approach.
After the election, Obama’s campaign will be studied closely, and its lessons will affect every major campaign from this point forward.
Given Bush’s (dis)approval ratings, any Republican candidate for president would need to run a better campaign than his Democrat opponent. McCain hasn’t accomplished this. I honestly can’t say that I know what McCain’s position is. As I write this, “Country First” is the lead messaging at JohnMcCain.com, and that’s the slogan I’ve seen most often.
However, apart from McCain’s commendable military service, he’s offered little to support “Country First.” Worse, his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate undermines his own positioning. With polls showing that 50%+ of Americans believe Palin is not qualified to be president, McCain’s judgment and commitment to “Country First” are implicitly (if not overtly) called into question.
(Not incidentally, the presence of Palin on the ticket neutralizes valid attacks that can be launched against Obama’s own short record.)
Other McCain messaging is even more curious. “The Original Mavericks” was more credible eight years ago, when McCain was without question perceived as a maverick within his own party. (His “Straight Talk Express” was a genius stroke to support this position.) Again, however, his Bush-aligned voting record undercuts the “maverick” claim, and in fact helps Obama to re-position McCain as not a maverick, but as “another W.” The use of the plural suggests that Palin is also a maverick, but her record is far too short to justify this.
Some of McCain’s ads have even used the slogan “Change Is Coming,” which is one of the most peculiar messaging decisions I’ve ever seen, given Obama’s success in owning the word “change.” This is akin to launching a car brand to compete with BMW, and supporting it with the tagline, “No, really, we’re the ultimate driving machine.”
Finally, McCain has suffered in the “brand character” department. In the debates, for instance, while Obama remained poised and polished, McCain often seemed condescending and cranky. And referring to a fellow senator as “that one” simply shows a lack of class. Brand character helps buyers (voters) to identify in one of three ways – “people like me, people I like, people I want to be like” – and McCain struggled to pass even some basic “likability” tests here. These last few days, both on Saturday Night Live and on the campaign trail, McCain has seemed looser and more self-deprecating, but it may be too little too late.
I’m well aware that the above is short on substantive matters like policies and issues. In a perfect world, of course, substance would decide every election. However, matters of policy can be complex and difficult for voters to grasp, and every voter today suffers from information overload. One of my points is that successful political campaigns, like successful brand campaigns, must unify and convey their stories with simplicity, consistency and credibility. Obama did this, and McCain did not.
I’ll offer no predictions for what will happen in the election tomorrow, but should Obama win, it will be in no small part because he ran the superior campaign.
Whichever side you support – get out and vote tomorrow! And may the best ticket win.
About Matthew Fenton: Matthew founded Three Deuce Branding in 1997 with a simple mission: “To help good people build great brands.” He’s a former CMO who repeatedly led underdog brands to dramatically outpace the market, and now he does the same for the clients he serves. Businesses with revenues of seven to ten figures trust Matthew to help them achieve “brand clarity” through core brand strategy and positioning. Matthew is also a highly-rated speaker. Contact Matthew here. He’s based in Chicago.
Copyright 2008 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.