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Friday, December 29, 2006

Political Brands: Hillary, Obama & John

In what has laughingly - or tragically, depending which side of the aisle you sit - been referred to as the Presidential race here in the United States, the pundits are already casting their lots on who's who of the upcoming race. The current president's body is still warm, his lame duck heart is still beating. Yet none of that seems to matter. The Next Big Thing is the Next American President and for that, the media is ramping up its mobile units, desperately covering every potential candidate's move, aching for an accurate prediction as to who will eventually triumph and why.

What nobody seems to have learned in all of this - not the pundits, the polls or the candidates themselves - is that there's only one thing a candidate needs to win an election: a clear, articulated brand strategy. It may be hard to see that at first, but stick with me on this and you'll see what I mean.

Perhaps the easiest way to see my point is by looking at two famous elections where branding played absolutely no part in the process. I refer, of course, to the two most confusing and pathetic elections ever held in the United States, those of 2000 and 2004. While Democrats may whine and sob about unfair elections and lopsided court rulings, the truth of the matter is that the final decisions about the 2000 presidential race should never have gotten to a courthouse. The fact is that had either side presented a clear, compelling brand strategy to the public, that side would have won a clear and decisive victory.

But in 2000, neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush could succinctly sum up who they were or what they stood for. Both men scampered around the country, sucking up to whomever would listen, attempting to be everything to everyone. As always happens, however, both ended up being nothing to anyone. In this case, it wasn't either man's brand strategy that won the election for him; it was the lack of brand strategy that lost it.

By the end of the 2000 election, nobody in America could articulate the difference between Bush and Gore. And when people can't tell the difference, they choose what they know over what they don't know. Being as risk averse as people are, that meant the election was moving toward Bush in any case, because Gore's rhetoric tended toward "futurespeak", while Bush focused on Jesus, the flag and apple pie.

Not a tough call there.

Nothing changed much in 2004, either. If you were even semi-conscious in March of 2004, you knew that Democrat John Kerry held a substantial double-digit lead in the polls over George W. Bush. The election was his to lose, and he did so, quite clumsily. By not taking a stand, then reversing his stand, then getting called on his "indecisiveness" by Republicans, Kerry took it in the shorts and lost the election by a much wider margin than did Gore. Again, the lack of brand strategy, coupled with the incessant pandering to the public, cost Kerry and his team the White House in 2004.

What have we learned from this? Chiefly, that if you don't articulate your brand strategy, the public will create their own version of your brand for you. And that, in a word, is not a good thing.

Now we're watching as the first names are whispered (usually not so silently) about the next presidential candidates and their chances of election. At this point, here's what you want to watch for:

Hillary Clinton: By not stating and implementing a clear brand strategy, Hillary is doomed to forever be perceived as a mean, ambitious and somewhat condescending bitch. She can coif her hair any way she wishes, but unless she reins in that pompous arrogance that radiates from her like a lighthouse beacon on a moonless ocean night, she's hosed.

Clinton's biggest issue is that she's starting out with far more negatives than positives, if you go by public perception. First, she's a woman. Not that it's bad to be a woman, but it is bad to be the exact kind of woman that the public loves to hate. Pushy. Bossy. A constant reminder to take out the trash - or to be her husband's "co-president." Second, she's known much more for her failures than her achievements. The truth may indeed show her to be an able politician, but her public failure with the Clinton Medical Health Program had less to do with public health than it did her resounding rejection by the Washington establishment. She came into town all hellfire and was sent packing within a week.

Finally, although all politicians are opportunistic, Hillary seems to be draw more than her share of the fire for being so. Her positions have shifted, seemingly drifting more centrist purely for the political appeal it may draw. Believe me, after years of pandering, the last thing the public wants is yet another Democrat who plays to whomever shows up at the rally.

Barack Obama: Just as William Goldman once observed in Adventures in the Screen Trade, "In the future, there will be no more movies, only deals," Obama is not a man. He's a package. Crafted carefully to crack the all white veneer of presidential politics, he is conveniently mixed race, which plays well to our media-driven society. Everywhere you see him, you never hear anyone talk about his policies or opinions. Instead, you hear comments like, "He's so bright and charismatic." The translation: "Maybe this is a black guy we can vote for."

Obama is smart. And charismatic. And trades well on his racial appearance. But then again, so is Halle Berry and you don't see her tossing her hat into the presidential race. I find it somewhat amusing that Obama's handlers have, at least to this point, managed to suppress his full name: Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. For those of you who have been asleep since September 10, 2001, that "Hussein" part isn't exactly appealing to about 99% of the American populace and it's only a matter of time until the more serious political competitors trot that baby out for public scrutiny. Sure, Obama's people will try to spin it into a racial or politically-correct kind of thing, doing what they can to make it a non-issue. But it is an issue and no amount of denial will make it go away.

What could make it go away is a strong brand strategy that revolved around real issues. People would rather vote for a mixed race muslim with consistent, agreeable viewpoints than some latest media darling.

Obama is also extremely young, and despite his intelligence, tremendously inexperienced both inside Washington and outside of America. Being young, gifted and black sounds great in a 30 second TV ad, but doesn't cut it in the real world.

John Edwards: What I love about Edwards is how incredibly stupid he and his campaign team are. How else do you explain the callousness of announcing a presidential bid on the very same day the nation gets the news about Gerald Ford's demise? Without even trying, Edwards displayed the exact kind of ruthlessness for which all personal injury lawyers are damned. And the best part is he had no idea that he was doing it.

To me, Edwards is the Christie Brinkley of presidential politics. Nice to look at, but you'd never take him seriously. Throughout the country, talking heads jabber on about how appealing he is to women. Of course he's appealing to women. He's a good looking guy. But on that premise, George Clooney should be running for president, not some ambulance chaser who got rich off other people's misery.

Edwards is also a really poor learner, who thinks that wavy hair and sparkling blue eyes will make people forget that he was a critical part in the Kerry/Edwards train that got derailed in 2004. Let's not forget that adding Edwards to the ticket was supposed to put Kerry over the top, not drag him under the water. The fact that we have no record of President John Kerry is due in great part to Edwards' inability to do much of anything other than look good on camera.

Think I'm wrong? Okay, you go out and ask anyone anything you want about John Edwards and see what you come up with. Nothing. Nada. Because there's nothing there. And when there's nothing coming from Edwards, people start relying on their perceptions of Edwards - some of which may be totally wrong.

Of course, nobody takes the presidential posturing seriously at this point. The smarter candidates are sitting on the sidelines, watching and learning from the early birds' missteps. That's good. At least they're being smart about it. The big question is whether any of them will develop, implement and sustain a clear, compelling brand strategy for themselves.

After all, you only get big votes when you're perceived as "the only solution to their problem."

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