Friday, August 06, 2004

Kerry, Bush and the Branding Problems

If you're wondering why the last two American presidential elections
have been such fiascoes, you really don't have to look too far. It
doesn't matter if your name is Bush, Kerry or Gore, the problems are
all the same:

America's national pastime isn't baseball any more. It's whining.

In a scenario that could only have sprung from the fiction of Ayn
Rand, we've become a nation of finger-pointers, where nobody is
accountable and everyone's ready to place blame. Of course, this is
nothing new. But it is something very dangerous. And it is very
much, as you may not have expected, nothing more than a branding

It's a branding issue once you accept the notion that a brand's job
is to lead, rather than follow. A real brand doesn't pander to the
whims of the populace; it drives a stake into the ground and
proclaims, "This is the way to greater glory." It explains why its
way is the chosen path. And then it does something that nobody in
America seems to do anymore:

It actually moves down that path.

That's something that's become all too uncommon in latter-day America,
where lawyers and committees base their decisions less on "what needs
to be done" rather than "what will offend the least number of
people." Yet that's exactly how American boardrooms -- and political
campaigns -- are run.

If people can't articulate why they want something, they have no way
of evangelizing it. It's as true for political candidates as it is
for laundry detergent. If you look at the elections of 2000 and 2004,
both have the disturbing degree of genericism. Two opposing
candidates, sharply jabbing at one another, yet nobody in the country
can articulate their differences. The reason why Kerry and Bush are
running neck and neck is due precisely to this factor. Neither has a
clear brand message.

But it gets worse.

When neither has a clear brand message, their campaigns deteriorate
into a series of mindless, whining tactics, driven by no rational
motivation. For the last year, John Kerry has managed to get himself
nominated to the highest office in the land -- yet nobody knows why.
For the last year, Kerry has squandered his chances to promote any
constructive ideas of his own, preferring to lob volleys of broad,
sweeping whines about how bad the other guy is. Scarier still is the
fact that his very first specific utterance was an attack on George
W. Bush that had no substance at all. Kerry, aping Michael Moore's
film, descended on Bush for not acting quicker than seven minutes
when Bush was told of the second tower attack while reading to school

If Kerry were really a man with leadership potential, he wouldn't act
the way he has. First, no mature leader worth his salt would ever
take a cheap shot requiring 20/20 hindsight. Seven minutes is not
seven hours or seven days. Second, no mature leader would ever allow
someone else to put words in his mouth. By quoting Moore's film,
Kerry has damaged his brand, further displaying an unwillingness to
state his own views in his own words. Third, Kerry's comment about
"the seven minutes" -- to me, at least -- suggests that he has long
since forgotten how a grown, responsible man handles himself in front
of children. If Bush had jumped up, or even excused himself in any
other way than he had, he risked causing undue panic. His actions
were a balance of deliberation and consideration. He acted the way a
mature father would have. At least that's something that some people
can relate to.

The funny thing is that by not having a brand strategy and resorting
to mere tactics, things have a funny way of backfiring. And John
Kerry, the great war hero, may have shot himself in the foot with
this one.

Look, I'm no fan of Bush. And Kerry might be a good man. But the
lack of either side to step forward and make their case makes it
difficult to value either. When the market (or in this case, the
nation), is left to vote according to who's least worse, instead of
who's best, there can be only one reason why:

Nobody out there has a real brand, because nobody out there really
wants to take the lead.


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