Monday, February 16, 2009

Meg Whitman's Losing Bid

Living as I do in California, I'm acutely aware of what the world thinks of Californians. I know that the other 49 states snicker and gossip about the disproportionate amount of attention the media showers on the Golden State. Like jealous siblings, other states begrudge us our successes and rejoice in our failures.

Being the honest guy that I am, I can't say that I really blame them. The taxes are mostly high. The breasts are mostly silicone. And the politicians are mostly, well, strange. Where else but California would voters seat a rich movie actor with no political acumen as governor? When he rode into office on the wave of discontent that flushed out former governor Gray Davis, Arnold Schwartzenegger flexed for the cameras, boasting about how he was going to kick some ass in Sacramento.

Now, saddled with a $42 billion budget gap and the state flat on its financial back, fans aren't so sure they made the right choice. Which happens to be terrific timing, considering that the first announced Republican contender for Schwartzenegger's job went public recently. And Meg Whitman, former CEO of EBay, says she's ready to rock.

I personally have no axe to grind with Whitman. I have real issues with her handlers, however, who seem to be hopelessly out of touch with the voting public.

In the first place, Whitman is a billionaire CEO. Read the paper lately? Have you found any good press about billionaire CEO's in say, the last three years? Corporations are dropping like flies while CEO's earn the wrath of just about everyone for million dollar bonuses -- and this is how they merchandise her?

Strike one.

Another issue dooming Whitman's brand is her stand on gay marriage. Kinda against it, but kinda for it: she likes civil unions, opposes gay marriages, but thinks the gay marriages that have been performed deserve to stay valid. Right. Got it. Her favorite color is plaid, on an issue that could be the most volatile of the coming election. An issue that Democrat Jerry Brown has made no bones about taking to center stage.

Strike two.

Did I mention how vain Californians are? Have you noticed that our governor got elected because he was a movie star? Maybe capped teeth, styled hair and a cinched waistline don't mean anything to you, but on the west coast, they're absolutely essential to getting a choice table at a restaurant -- you think claiming the governor's title is any different? Hey, if Hillary Clinton could undergo a makeover, you'd think that Meg's handlers would package her up a tad more professionally. Think I'm kidding?

Ever watch the Kennedy Nixon debates from the 1960's? Uh huh. Don't tell me that looks don't count.

Strike three. You're out.

Yeah, sure, there's the subject of gender. Meg is female, but that's no big deal. Both California senators are female, so that's no saving grace when she's facing all those other negatives without the campaign having even started.

Like I said, I have no idea if Whitman would make a good governor. I do have a suspicion that judging from her current brand image, she's not really good at selecting handlers. But then, she's Meg Whitman from EBay. Maybe she's using the lowest bidders.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Ginsburg Launches Obama Era

I'm fond of telling people that "life is a branding problem." Branding changes history. Let's face it, whether you're a lord of the Dark Ages converting legions of serfs to Christianity or Procter & Gamble converting legions of housewives to laundry detergent, you're still telling everyone to use your product and wear your logo. History, to a large degree, is determined by brand association and conversion.

Armies wear insignias. Automobiles wear hood ornaments. But you'd be wrong to assume that brand association occurs merely in the visual world. Brands flourish in the conceptual world, too. And a large component of a brand's viability is timing. Such is the case of the new era of "brand Obama," which many mistakenly believe occurred in November of 2008.

While it's true that Barack Obama's somewhat vague theories of change were enthusiastically embraced by the American voting public in November, 2008, the truth is that nothing of substance really occurred that day. Symbolic as it was, the next day was business as usual in the Bush administration. The excitement throughout the country was palpable, though, and lingered until the next theoretical target date: Inauguration Day.

On January 20, 2009, Obama was sworn in as President of the United States. Millions of onlookers braved the fierce frigidity of Washington, D.C. to witness the spectacle. Millions more tearfully viewed it on television. It was a great moment for the country. A great moment in history. But that's all it really was. A great moment, perhaps, but not the true beginning of the Obama era.

I can't help it. I'm a branding guy, but I'm a results-driven branding guy.

From where I sit, the true beginning of the Obama legacy actually begins on February, 5, 2009, the day Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced she'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although Justice Ginsburg has survived a previous bout with cancer, and this occurrence was diagnosed early, her prospects at this point are -- at the very least -- going to make it difficult for her to fulfill her obligations. As anyone who knows a cancer patient can tell you, the treatments often drain the patient of energy and drive. It often sidelines them from work.

Which, from a branding perspective, means Obama got elected just in time.

Brand Obama's first great opportunity for real change will not come in the form of a stimulus package. Or a social program. Or a deal that rebuilds the country's roads and bridges. Obama's legacy of change will stem from the very real, inevitable, history-altering occasion on which he appoints Justice Ginsburg's replacement. Too many voters forget that prior to November, 2008, the Supreme Court was teetering dangerously toward a one-sided viewpoint on just about every issue brought for its consideration. Had John McCain been elected, the ensuing replacement justices would have tipped the balance of a branch of government -- designed to be impartial -- into a far-right dominance that would have lasted at least one generation and possibly longer.

So while everyone else seems to be missing the boat and silk-screening images of the President onto everything that soaks up ink, the true effect of "brand Obama" begins on February 5, 2009. The day America woke up -- hopefully -- to realize just how close it came to seeing its brand of justice go over the cliff.