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Monday, January 28, 2008

Obama's Fatal Endorsements

One of the most often misquoted phrases in American culture originates with H. L. Mencken, who once observed that "nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." What many think Mencken said was that "nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."

To look at how the presidential election of 2008 is shaping up, the misquote is a far more accurate observation.

I may be just a branding guy, but a big part of branding -- even political brands -- is the strategic element that drives the executions of the campaigns. And while everyone in the media is crowing about Barack Obama, you may want to take a more intelligent look at what's really going on...and why the victory cries are just a tad premature:

A significant part of brand value is derived from endorsements. In other words, you can tout yourself all you want, but when it comes to credibility, there's nothing quite like third party endorsements. When actual users of your product stand up and cheer for your brand, you've literally achieved branding nirvana. After all, that's the whole point of branding: to turn users into evangelists; customers into a sales force.

It works as well for votes as it does for soap, believe me.

Of course, the one thing that everyone seems to forget is that the endorsements aren't nearly as important as the people doing the endorsing. Sure, it's really great when the unwashed masses can make the connection between the guy using your brand and your brand itself. The right brand in the right place can really move the needle. But what about those times when the right brand ends up in the wrong places?

What happens when the wrong guys rally around your brand? I can tell you this much: it's not pretty.

You wouldn't want O.J. Simpson endorsing your kitchen knives. Or Michael Jackson on your package of baby wipes. Years ago, Anita Bryant -- former Miss America and personal representative of Jesus Christ -- nearly brought down the Florida Orange growers with her vicious anti-gay remarks. And someone, somewhere, thought she was just what the growers needed to sell more juice. Clearly, it was someone who felt homosexuals lacked heterosexuals' daily need for vitamin C.

You get the idea. The wrong guy's endorsements can kill a brand just as quickly as the right guy's can launch it. Which brings us to the latest endorsements of Barack Obama.

A short time ago, the press was all abuzz with the story of how Senator John Kerry -- that's right, the ex-presidential candidate tagged as the sorriest loser of 2004 -- gave his ringing endorsement to Obama. Wow. A former losing candidate, likely to be foot-noted by historians as the flip-flopping dunce who bungled a 15 point lead in the polls just months before the national election, losing to an even-less qualified candidate.

Yeah, THAT'S the guy whose endorsement is going to stampede voters into the booths. Sure.

Today, we hear that yet another perennial blowhard is backing Obama in his bid for national leadership: Senator Ted Kennedy. Someone, anyone, please tell me what value a bloated, outdated, never-was like Ted Kennedy can bring to Barack Obama? It's been over 40 years since the golden days of Camelot. And to quote the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen, "Senator, I knew John Kennedy...and you're no John Kennedy."

What, if any value, does Ted Kennedy bring to Barack Obama? A worn out faded dream of potential, never-realized optimism? A visual image of failed alcoholism and privilege afforded by inherited wealth? I don't think so.

If you really want to know the value of an endorsement, try looking at it the other way around: Two over-the-hill, aging and irrelevant politicians rubbing up against the media's newest sensation. Just as some older men buy red Corvettes and young trophy wives, Kennedy and Kerry make fools of themselves by donning Obama T-shirts, hawking the baseball caps and hoping, praying that network television will grant them one last hurrah as the old Glory Boys they once hoped they could be.

Not really the kind of ringing endorsement the media would have you believe it to be.

Sad, really. For everyone except, perhaps, the Clintons.

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