In the political realm, branding applies just as importantly and extensively as in the consumer world, though I argue it is hidden a great deal more. In political branding, instead of attaching a product or service to a brand, you are attempting to attach ideals and promises to an individual brand which can be considerably more difficult. Instead of creating a glitter eye shadow line to capture the “tween” market in a cosmetics line, you are discovering ways to promote ideals or policy initiatives that will capture a specific age group. Many of the same marketing tools are applied to sway the public in terms of political issues that are used by manufacturers to market their products to the same public.
Of course, branding techniques have always been in political campaigns to a certain extent, so the idea of “political branding” itself is not exactly revolutionary. For example, the earliest form of political branding is slogans – slogans cause you to attach emotions and ideas to a particular candidate. In the past, the branding techniques were used only to reinstate fundamental points of difference in very black or white situations – they were there to put you on one side of the fence or the other on broad issues. In the modern political world however, branding has skyrocketed in importance because we can see the key differences between major political parties becoming much more attitudinal rather than substantial (Muir), which in turn communicates a much greater need to appeal to the personalities and emotions of the American public rather than simply laying out the issues. However, for such an important topic, the public is grossly unaware of their susceptibility to political branding techniques.
For example, a poll accompanying an article entitled “Campaign 2008: Buying Brand X” in the San Francisco Chronicle by Carla Marinucci asked the question: “Do you think you are susceptible to the branding of politicians?” An overwhelming 64% answered with a confident choice of “No, I am able to tune out the noise and really just look at the record.” (Marinucci) MORE THAN HALF! This also exemplifies how capable the political branding PR masterminds are – there is no way that 64% of Americans, or frankly, even 6% of Americans are able to avoid the different things that PR branding geniuses do with political campaigns. The public fails to understand the essence and effectiveness of branding. I had a professor in a communications class equate the effect of the media on the American public to a fish swimming through water; we breathe it without even realizing it is running over us through every vessel of our bodies. Every single move the candidates make, every blog post, every tie choice is absolutely strategic and it shocked me to see the naivety of the people answered that poll.
One of the reasons why political branding is so rarely spoken about in the public eye, versus corporate or retail branding, is because people strongly believe that political branding destroys the democratic nature and tradition of an election. Many believe that the obsession with image comes at the expense of a focus on policy and believe that a focus on branding leads candidates to make more empty promises in order to steal the hearts of voters and then turn around and do whatever they want in office. Critics condemn the “Hollywood” values being brought into politics in the modern world, focusing more and more on the personalities and personal lives of candidates and less and less on the issues facing America. I do believe that most people would like to think that they do not buy into the stories and successfully avoid strategy traps and suggestive campaign tricks because often in a social setting it makes you appear less credible and to a certain extent even appear less intelligent if you believe what campaigns tell you (ex: if you believe Hillary Clinton cried on her own during the press conference). However, sorry folks, if you think you are immune to the political branding system, I believe you to be even less intelligent than your peers might think if you believe the campaigns, because the truth of the matter is, it is unavoidable. If you think you avoid it, you just don’t know the extent of it. And so, we continue so that I can teach you.
The people that believe political branding destroys the democratic nature of an election are somewhat right, but should they continue to believe political campaigns can happen without political branding, they will continue to live in a complete fantasy world. There would be no campaign without branding – essentially, a campaign IS 99% branding and marketing. Marketing is necessary in nearly every sector of today’s society. Additionally, branding is not the enemy as these skeptics make it out to be – branding achieves the party’s ability to correctly and emphatically communicate their goals and ideals for the upcoming presidency. Branding simply appeals a more to the emotion of voters – a little more to the right side of the brain than the left. Here is an appropriate point to examine some of the tools that allow candidates to make these emotional connections with voters.
The emergence of the internet as a major strategic weapon in the 2008 presidential race has definitely furthered the importance of branding. Every candidate has a My Space, a Facebook account, official websites, and several blogs, which is essentially unprecedented in presidential elections. Interestingly, now there is even a You-Tube political channel dedicated to the 2008 race! Television used to be the major avenue for political campaigning, but the explosion of the internet now gives voters an entirely new perspective that has one thing television can never have: involvement. Voters can watch speeches online at their own pace, post comments and questions on discussion boards, and share their opinions with other voters through the countless blogs they have to choose from. The internet has opened up another entire avenue for management and is major reason why PR is now quintessential to campaigning (Silverstein). In fact, the internet has truly brought back a key of a democratic election with voter participation, and highlights the participatory element of democracy, which many people find highly attractive.
Conversely, the internet unfortunately can be as much of a threat as it is a proactive tool. With the countless opportunities for freedom of speech and expression, it is nothing short of impossible to completely attain the crisis management level necessary to consistently maintain an image. For this reason many are skeptical, or even dislike the internet’s new role in campaigning. One You Tube video compromising the position or image of a presidential candidate can do irreversible damage within the first three minutes that it hits the internet. There are no ethical checks preformed on internet material – no standards to be upheld by a professional (Silverstein). Republican strategist Mike Murphy spoke the startling truth in an interview with Marinucci: “Once it’s out there…it’s out there. There’s no venue for correction, retraction, or rebuttal. And no authority to whom to appeal for redress.” (Marinucci) Despite the obvious advantages of the world wide web, the lack of regulation is frightening to a campaign, and rightfully so. Murphy solemnly declared: “Taken to an extreme, and with an electoral split recently at 50/50, an exploitative, negative, and possibly false but brilliantly conceived viral ad could shift the views of a million undecided voters in the final hours of a campaign.” (Marinucci) In the future, policy makers will undoubtedly struggle in a search for ways to somehow maintain a standard of journalistic expectations and ethics without stepping on the toes of the beloved first amendment.
An example of the lethal capabilities of the internet was seen when a You Tube video was released that depicted 2008 candidate Hillary Clinton as the “big brother” in a remake of the famous 1984 Apple Macintosh ad. The clip delivered a serious blow to the Clinton campaign because it highlighted one of the greatest differences between other Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Clinton – experience. It turned Clinton’s positive White House experience on which she has consistently relied as one of her main strengths throughout her campaign and replaced with an image of “Clinton as IBM to Obama’s Apple” (Silverstein). The clip portrayed her as the “old” Washington, and Obama as the “fresh face” without even having to mention Obama once. In one minute or so, a voter’s opinion of Hillary’s image can change from an “experienced and educated” Hillary, to an “old, stingy and tired” Hillary, while planting seeds of Obama’s fresh and different campaign (Mariucci).
Interestingly enough (related or unrelated to the release of the video clip), Barack Obama (or his branding strategists, rather) has proven to be the 2008 candidate best using the internet to his advantage in order to build an identity brand – and it has certainly paid off. The internet has been Obama’s greatest branding tool with the creation of his website My.BarackObama.com which is an extensive networking site for Obama followers that includes message boards, fundraising tools, and a clear and concise breakdown of each issue facing the presidential candidates and where Obama stands on each. Obama has also spoken through chats and webcasts to supporters on social networking sites such as Facebook.com, a youthful and next generation approach not employed by any other candidate (Marinucci). His extensive employment of the internet as a strategic weapon no doubt impresses the American public; in a recent poll conducted by Zogby International 44.7% of Americans expect the next President to be internet savvy (prnewswire.com). Good move by Obama’s camp!
In addition to avenues of communication like the internet, another important part of political branding is the tangible pieces of the campaign, which are incredibly essential in winning over the American public initially. The easiest but definitely most important tangible piece of a campaign due to its intense and constant exposure is the logo of the campaign. (Silverstein) For example, the logo of Barack Obama is unlike any logo the public has been exposed to in the past. Gone is the corny, exhausted block lettered look, and in its place a sleek, modern, and sophisticatedly simple “O” incorporating a clever usage of the American flag waves a calm, but strong, hello to the American voters. The logo grabs the eye of the public instantly with its unconventional ease. Exploring from another angle, it is interesting to see the “Hillary for President” logo, which although may not the most appealing to the eye, is worth noting because it is clear she avoided using the “Clinton for President” instead choosing to set herself apart, and in my opinion, relate to the voters on a more personal level, by using just Hillary. On the Republican side of things, we have the successful candidate John McCain’s stoic and sturdy logo of a white and black color combination combined with a definite military-esque star above the name which just screams an extremely authentic “trust me.” His logo directly fed into the brand he has lived by in presenting himself as an esteemed military veteran and promoting his experience in that department. Now look at the other side of things – Rudy Giuliani, who recently withdrew from the 2008 Presidential election. Giuliani’s logo resembled a candy bar – which nobody would ever pick up off of the shelf. An unappealing “RUDY” in white letters on a blue background with a red border (patriotic – how original) doesn’t leave a negative impression on voters. Worse however, is that it leaves no image in the minds of voters – no brand at all. Who would have thought simply the structure and color combination of a political logo could say so much about a campaign?
More tools for creating important tangible portions of a campaign were revealed when Americans were presented with a perfect opportunity to be exposed and learn about just how much thought goes into the branding and marketing strategies after the Boston Globe obtained an extensive, internal campaign document outlining Romney’s plan for managing his individual brand, dealing with key issues, and also framing his competitors. What might be some of the top concerns of the Romney campaign in February? Common citizens would most likely answer with specific issues, or maybe a lack of communication with a particular constituency. Instead, some of the reasons the Romney team cited as threats to a Presidential bid included hair that was too perfect, lack of a tough war-time image, and a newfound nickname of “Slick Dancing Mitt.” (Helmen) Initially when hearing this, many common people might want to laugh – I know I did – but the reality of the situation is complete. Physical image is something that needs to be heavily focused on when communicating to the American public. One political marketing researcher, professor Michael Lewis of Washington University, found that when comparing the brand of Republicans against the brand of Democrats, Republicans generally did better when they appeared more competent and trustworthy with the look of a CEO or a high school quarterback, sporting a strong, square jaw and cropped hair. Democrats on the other hand, found their image success in appearing more intelligent and likeable with a look similar to a college professor. (Lewis) “If politics were like high school, Republicans would be the football stars and Democrats would be the chess club captains,” stated interviewer of Lewis, writer Shula Neuman. This research is another tool used to prove that little, even seemingly trivial, aspects of a candidate’s individual brand make extreme differences in voter’s reactions and feelings. So, sir poll respondent and claimer of an unaffected stance, did you realize that one of the reasons you implicitly trust John McCain is because of his haircut and jaw line? Didn’t think so.
Clearly, the branding of a presidential candidate is not all about advertising, logos, You Tube videos and tie choices; it is predominately about communicating who the individual is as a person and what they believe in to both implement and defend. A successful candidate will find a common ground and an emotional connection with voters. Brand strategists use the tangible things, such as logos, to inspire ideals and adjectives that voters will immediately connect with their candidate (Marinucci). Each candidate clearly focuses on different adjectives depending on their specific campaign. However, it is extremely interesting to see parallels between Republican and Democratic candidates. For example, on the Democratic side, the tangible things done by the Hillary Clinton campaign beg us to think experience and leadership – a sturdy candidate we can rely on. Similarly, Republic candidate and war veteran John McCain’s campaign causes the minds of the public to also jump to experience, “straight-talk” and leadership. Both candidates share the marketing of independence – McCain from his military background, and Clinton from her husband’s presidency. On the other side of the coin, we see the sleek Barack Obama campaign which clearly causes thoughts of novelty, innovation, and change, which can draw parallels to Mitt Romney’s campaign advocating in a way which makes us feel a new, energetic, and bold leadership. The fact that we think these adjectives when a candidate is brought up to us is 99% NOT our own thinking, despite what those 64% of silly Americans that took that poll say about their whimsical ability to stay out of the jaws of branding geniuses.
To better understand how much political strategists value the “auto adjectives” associated with their candidates, we can again point to the uncovered Romney document. The presentation gives incredible insight into how the Romney team not only develops the individual brand in a positive manner to compel Americans to associate noteworthy adjectives with the Romney name, but how the strategists also immediately and responsibly pick out Romney’s weaknesses and explore how to focus on immediately minimizing those in the media (often called crisis control, or crisis management). For example, the Romney’s camp admits off the bat that Romney does not have enough of a strong, war hero image like McCain to cater to that kind of crowd; although they establish that he is a credible second choice for those voters, they primarily focus and play up the goal of establishing Romney as a first pick for his group of voters (where McCain would not do as well) who are looking for an “energetic, optimistic, and innovative chief executive.” (Helman) A marketing-oriented graphic portrays McCain as the past, Giuliani the present, and Romney the future. (Helman) Here it becomes incredibly clear that the center of Romney’s brand will be, in essence, a new generation, the future, and the innovator which we have certainly seen played out thus far in the 2008 campaigning process. This document shows us the perfect example of brand strategists targeting adjectives to ideally be associated with a client and then the steps taken to construct a campaign that can achieve those goals.