Is it a coincidence that Hillary Clinton frequently uses the word experience while campaigning, or that Barack Obama’s campaign is identified with the need for change? How about the identification of John McCain as a candidate who will stand strong on national security? 2008 has become the year when campaigning has gone beyond identification of candidates with issues and personalities, and in to the area of branding.
Branding is a marketing term that has been around for well over 100 years. In its original context, it referred to making a product identifiable, and uniquely known among consumers. A more modern extension of this is the use of a brand to convey the feeling or attitude of the consumer. For example, consider the branding of Michael Jordan his Nike shoe line. The shoes were branded to reflect the attributes of athleticism and winning. Apple is an example of a company that has tried to create an attitude of cool and cutting edge with their branding.
I would argue that the first calculated and coordinated instance of political branding took place during the re-election campaign of George W. Bush in 2004. The Bush campaign was not satisfied to say that their candidate was patriotic. They took the additional step identifying support of George W. Bush as an act of patriotism. Going to the polls to vote was no longer enough to be considered patriotic, but who you voted for determined your degree of patriotism. A vote for John Kerry was an unpatriotic act. In this respect, the Bush campaign succeed on two fronts. They created a positive brand for the president, and a negative one for his opponent.
Alan Siegel, Chairman and CEO of Siegel+Gale, points out that a political brand often shifts within the same campaign. “Creating brands for politicians is always a work in progress: immediate, hyper-competitive, ever-evolving and ever-adapting to changes in the electorate and changes in the opposition’s brand strategy.” Siegel believes that Barack Obama’s brand needs to be refined to challenge Hillary Clinton’s claims of experience and preparedness. He links her recent success in Texas and Ohio with her message of experience.
He offered the following advice for the Obama campaign. “While keeping his authenticity and brand voice, Obama must respond more effectively to Hillary Clinton’s promise of experience and a perceived readiness to serve as Commander-in-Chief that resonates with her core audiences. He must challenge those assumptions without going negative, without getting down in the dirt. Obama basically needs to reposition Clinton by challenging the quality of her experience, but in a way that resonates with his brand voice.”
Presidential candidates are no longer our fellow citizens running for the highest office in the land. In the modern campaign they are products, and the voters are the consumers. The campaigns are always looking for ways to create a brand that resonates emotionally with voters. The Obama brand is that of change, while Clinton is appealing to the market with the re launch of a product that was very popular with voters in the previous decade. When Clinton talks about experience, she isn’t necessary referring to her own, but she is trying to tap into Democratic voters’ memories of her husband’s administration.
The techniques of the modern presidential campaign have come a long way, but I question what the impact on our democracy is when candidates become products, and the human element is looked at as something that is either to be removed or manipulated? Now that we select our leaders based on PR and marketing, how do we know whether we are getting the right person for the job, or were swayed by the best campaign? These are troubling questions for which there is currently no definitive answer.