Friday, August 29, 2008

Palin Pandering Pops McCain Bubble

While I realize that it's not the panacea to the world's problems, as our society becomes increasingly saturated by media, it really is true. Life is a branding problem. And nowhere can you find better proof of that than in the American presidential elections. In the latter part of the twentieth century, strong presidents (Reagan) developed strong, clear brand strategies that connected with the American public. In the first elections of the twenty first century, it was the lack of brand strategy that confused the American public.

The election of 2008 is subject to the same effects. In this case, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama has a clear brand message. But with the revelation that John McCain has chosen Alaska governor Sarah Pain as his vice presidential running mate, it would seem evident that the race is now over.

Your new president is Mr. Obama. And here's why:

While neither candidate has a clearly stated brand message, only one candidate has a strong brand message. That would be Mr. Obama. For as I've written here, while there isn't an Obama fan within a hundred miles that can articulate any of Obama's policies, Obama has succeeded in motivating an uneducated -- and seemingly undemanding -- public into action. In branding terms, Obama is the Nike of politics: "Just do it" sounds as if it means something, but when you think about it, nobody has any idea what it means. So it is with Obama. But there's a big difference in the political branding space:

Where Obama surpasses McCain is that Obama's marketing efforts are pro-active, while McCain's efforts are decidedly reactive. And for smoking gun evidence, you need look no further than McCain's surprise choice of Palin as his running mate.

You can say what you want about Obama's vague chants of change, but McCain's choice of Palin is clearly the result of pollsters' panderings to the public, hoping to attract the Hillary Clinton supporters who -- in McCain's dreams -- would rather vote for a Republican woman than a Democrat man.

Okay, a Democrat black man. There. I said it.

But McCain's advisors are wrong here. Big time. In the first place, Palin is no Hillary. In the second, if you had any doubts about Obama's experience, you ain't seen nothing yet. Palin, at 44, has little experience outside her home state. Third, Palin is a confirmed pro life/anti-abortionist. Need I go on? To paraphrase the Florida Senator, "She's no Joe Biden." She's more like a Dan Quayle. In a debate, that will become a public disaster.

What McCain's team has completely missed is the fact that the American public is probably more than a little tired of the right-leaning agenda of the past two administrations. While remaining non-specific, Obama has succeeded in pulling back the curtain on the Bush administration, exposing it as a cavalcade of failures. The current economic slump doesn't hurt him, either.

In the end, McCain's foolish attempt to pander is what kills all brands. It reflects an inability to lead, an abdication of authority by playing to the crowd instead of inspiring the crowd. As Abraham Lincoln so aptly said, "You can fool some of the people some of the time." It's just that this ain't one of those times.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Microsoft launches Seinfeld Bomb

There are times when life is unfair. And then there are times when life is juicy and rewarding. The unfair times are when seemingly stupid hot chicks make tons of money for nothing other than looking hot and being stupid.

But then there are the rewarding times. Like when a huge, rich corporation thinks it can buy its way into the hearts and minds of the public, simply because it happens to be huge and rich. Such is the case of Microsoft having announced its paying once-hip-now-just-wealthy-through-television-syndication comedian Jerry Seinfeld something like $10 million to pitch its bloatware.

Talk about the other guy blinking. Clearly Microsoft is more than a little irked at Apple's ability to claw its way back into the market. Where the Gates gang once boasted of Apple's continually dwindling market share, it now seems that Jobs and company have managed to steadily increase their share of market. In fact, some reports have Apple's MacBook laptops as the first choice of students throughout the United States.

Whether Apple's success is due to their iPod, MacBooks, AirPorts, iTunes or any one of their other revolutionary and elegant technological solutions is up for debate. One thing for sure: Apple's smarmy "Mac versus PC" television spots have connected with its audience -- and seemingly, with Microsoft's lower jaw. Years of ribbing have finally baited Microsoft into an "I'm hipper than you" war, with someone, somewhere, so totally clueless as to think that Jerry Seinfeld is the right man for the job.

Jerry Seinfeld? Excuse me, but aren't we just a few decades late on that call?

This is the exact reason I counsel clients to avoid celebrities like the plague. Forget the fact that a perennial prop on the Seinfeld show was a Macintosh (it was always on the desk against the wall of his apartment) or that hardcore fans can list the episodes which featured Apple's 20th Anniversay Mac. We're talking about a formerly single guy whose wit and charm has been largely replaced by jowls and cigars. The man has been a veritable ghost since the last, desperate season of his sitcom. But Microsoft thinks he can turn things around and make its brand hip, cool and relevant.

Let me go out on a limb here and make a prediction: This campaign is not going to make Microsoft relevant. This campaign is going to be the biggest bomb since Hiroshima.

Think I'm kidding? Okay, which does your kid prefer, an iPod or a Microsoft Zune? Uh huh. That's what I thought.

The fact is that no cheap campaign is going to change Mircosoft's brand image, because Microsoft has no brand strategy -- and never has. But Microsoft does have money. And influence. And the one thing that goes with both of those: A keen sense of denial.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

McCain's Strategy of Age

Over the last week, I've gotten a fair amount of media calls regarding the McCain-Obama election, mainly from a branding point of view. Is McCain out of it? Is Obama unstoppable? You know -- the usual stuff. I find these questions fascinating, if only because it reminds me of the incredibly brief attention span of a nation that seems increasingly ADHD. One minute they're impassioned about global warming; the next they're up in arms over higher gas prices. Go figure. The big question over the last weeks has been, "Is it over for McCain?" To which I reply, "Hardly." And here's why:

While youth is sexier and more robust, it doesn't always win out. In fact, it seldom does. And if you're paying attention, you're seeing one of the more intriguing public brand strategy battles happening in real time.

Everyone likes to dump on McCain for being older. What they don't want to acknowledge is that he may be a tad wiser in ways the American media really doesn't understand. Just as when the media wrote of his primary campaign, they're writing him off now. But if you look closely, there's a pretty smart plan in play. McCain is using a classic strategy of leveraging his opponent's strength to his advantage. And it's working.

Not only has McCain realized that Obama is a rock star, he's playing that very asset against Obama. Think differently? Okay, consider Obama's recent world tour that was designed to promote his international credibility. Lots of energy. Lots of talent. Lots of video. And lots of sellout crowds across the continent. Ostensibly, that huge effort should have worked. It should have pushed McCain into the shadows. But it didn't. McCain didn't fight Obama for media attention at all. In fact, he let Obama play out his tour. But then McCain took down Obama's entire effort with a well-placed comment about Obama's acting presidential when he's not the president. The massive whooshing sound that followed was the wind being sucked out of Obama's sails. Within one soundbyte, Obama went from "potential international statesman" to "publicity-seeking rock star."


This reminds me of when I was in my twenties on the racquetball court, and a man in his late fifties (now that's old) challenged me to a game. I couldn't believe the old fart had that stones to take me on. It was no contest, so I accepted. I had better speed, more agility and more endurance. Twenty one points later, the guy had whipped my ass, because he knew I had better speed, more agility and more endurance. So he stayed in one spot and hit the ball where I wasn't. At the end of the game, I was a losing heap of sweat and he was a winner, grinning calmly and coolly.

In the later stages of his career, Muhammad Ali used the same tactic on his younger opponents, applying his "rope a dope" strategy. He'd let the morons charge and punch and pound him in the early rounds -- and then won in the later rounds by pummeling them when they were too tired to fight back. It's the same thing with McCain and Obama. The young buck is out there, spending a lot of energy, getting lots of press. The old guy is just hanging back, waiting for his shot.

Maybe political pundits should take a look at the true definition of what experience means in this race. Perhaps it's not as important to have spent a lot of time on the Senate floor as it is to have spent a lot of time out there on the street.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The tragedy of the Olympics

As the world gets ready to view the 2008 Olympics in China, it's worthwhile taking note of why this edition of the historic games is likely to be among the worst in modern times. It's not as if there's just one reason why the Olympics simply aren't what they used to be. It's that they've become just about everything the Olympics weren't supposed to be.

For one thing, the Olympics have always supposed to be about amateur athletes. The up and coming guys. The promise of the new generation. Check your history and you'll find that in days of yore, none other than American great Jim Thorpe was denied his Olympic medals for accepting something less than $50 associated with one race in his career before his participation in the Olympics. Talk about playing by the rules. In those days, the Olympic committee showed no mercy. Any kind of gift -- cash, stock or trade --was considered remuneration, which defined you as a pro and out you went.

Not today. If anything, you have the exact opposite, with clowns like Kobe Bryant prancing into spotlight yet again, robbing the global public of the Olympics' true purpose. Hey, if I want to see Kobe jumping around on TV, I can turn on ESPN, or alternatively, any hotel room's closed circuit television tapes. He's already made his bucks. He already has his endorsements. And he gets more than his share of media attention. Does nobody care about the unsung amateur hoopster, somewhere out there, practicing endlessly in hopes of getting his shot at fame? Now that all the professionals have crowded out the amateurs, what's left for them?

What would have happened if an amateur Cassius Clay had been bumped to allow a professional Sonny Liston to compete in the Olympic games? I'll tell you what would have happened: you wouldn't know who Muhammad Ali is today.

The Beijing Olympics are going to bomb out for another purely non-Olympic reason: politics. Hey, I don't care what your opinion of Tibet is, but it has nothing to do with track and field or women's volleyball. Take it outside the building, we're trying to play ball here.

You know, there was a time when people weren't media hogs. You could actually go to the Academy Awards and see genuine professionals accepting gratitude from an adoring public who benefited from the celluloid escapes provided by movie studios. That all changed in the 1970's, when Marlon Brando dispatched an Indian chick to the stage in his stead, in order to dramatize the plight of Native Americans. Nice sentiment, and one swell peach of a way to destroy a fun, carefree celebration by dragging people into the depths of depression with a misplaced, selfish agenda.

Look, I can understand the implied statement of Jess Owens' victory against Hitler's Aryans in 1936. That was a pure, unspoken moment in world history that everyone understood without anyone mentioning a word. Watching Hitler storm out of the Berlin stadium said it all.

But in 1968's Mexico City Olympics, we had to endure the public spectacle of black medalists raising their fists as America's national anthem was played to celebrate their victories. It may have been effective, but it was shameful -- and I might add, ungracious. After all, they were there to represent all of us, not just a few of us. Four years later, in 1972, mentally-defective pro-palestinian terrorists invaded Munich's Olympic village and murdered the majority of Israel's athletic representatives. The games haven't been the same since.

If you want to kick back and watch corporate America foist even more unnecessary fast food between replays of professionals you've watched a million times before, have at it. As for myself, I'm going to download all five seasons of Get Smart.