Steve Laughlin

Obama. A better president? Maybe. A better brand? Definitely.

If one thing is certain in this moment in history, Barack Obama won the branding battle.  When we see the now familiar new age patriotic symbol of a round blue circle enclosing an earth of red and white stripes, we immediately fill in a sense of hopefulness and change, a new political order.  Criticized for lacking specifics, Obama won the broader, more emotional war of themes.  He seemed on message all of the time forcing McCain to constantly react.  McCain’s message became of litany of don’t rather than do, of can’t rather than can, won’t rather than will.

There’s no question the financial market crisis that is unsparing in its carnage has put perhaps only one person into a better place.  Barack  Obama.  The economy has even turned Joe Biden into the “other Joe” in the campaign as Joe the Plumber has come to symbolize our rude awakening from the American Dream.  I hope this Alpha Joe has a good agent.

There’s no more powerful change agent than a bad economy, but that aside Obama’s ascension is a case study in the market dynamics of new brand versus old.  Positive versus negative.  Simple and direct versus detailed and pedantic.  Emotional versus rational.

Being new doesn’t hurt.  Many of today’s most familiar brands were unknown ten years ago.  Amazon, Prius, Yahoo, iPod, Starbucks, Ikea, Jet Blue, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Red Bull, Ultimate Fighting Championship, even Al Qaeda.  In spite of McCain’s try to make more, pardon the expression, liberal use of the word “change,” Brand Obama came to represent it.  The newer face has advantages here.  If Sarah Palin supporters are about to raise their hands in protest, let’s not ignore that new also represents risk.  That offsetting position was McCain’s advantage and biggest counterpoint.  Whatever he gained from choosing Palin as a running mate was certainly compromised in the lost opportunity to position Obama’s newness against him.

That being said, here are four things all brands should do in their message strategy, that Obama simply did better:

  1. Avoid the past.   That’s where brands go to die.
  2. Don’t be negative, be comparative.  There’s an art to pointing out the deficiencies in your opponent using tact rather than venom.  Think Mac versus PC here.
  3. Take a position your opponent can’t.  Or, better yet out flank your opponent by taking their best position away from them.  Obama anticipated a historic weakness in the Democratic brand perception of tax and spend, so he got out in front of the issue early by offering the entire middle class a tax break.  McCain was trumped on his best issue.
  4. Keep it simple.

It’s not likely that great brand strategies alone can make great presidents.  But they can make one brand win over the other.  Which can put the winner in a position to let all the other tests determine his or her greatness.

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Steve Laughlin

To improve your brand, try doing nothing.

The best brand people often make something out of nothing. It’s still called white
space. And it’s still the most important principal in good design.

The notion that less is more is one of the oldest arguments in advertising. It’s almost
laughable that anyone would argue with the aesthetic of a clean, simple message. After
all, Bill Bernbach won that argument once and for all 40 years ago with all those classic
VW ads. DDB launched a new school of advertising. My generation was inspired to get
into the business as art became a partner to commerce. The thinking went along the
lines that if we were going to intrude on people’s entertainment, why not be interesting
and engaging about.

We’ve obviously lost our way. Print advertising is harder to read than it ever was thanks
to image manipulation software and the ability to layer type and tone. With longer
commercial breaks, higher costs and shorter spots, TV has gotten much worse, too.
And thanks to technology, designers can digitize the clutter and put it on-line in a
comprehension defying jumble. Welcome to new media.

It might be a good time to put the design monster back in its cage.

Clean communications is largely the result of the Bauhaus movement, the invention of
Helvetica type and the insights of advertising design pioneers in the 60s like Helmut
Krone.

In a brilliant 2007 documentary called HELVETICA, director Gary Hustwit chronicles
how this type innovation swept corporate logos, signage, collateral information and all
forms of mass communication. This movement coincided with the Golden Age of
advertising in the 60s and 70s. Helvetica type cleaned up all forms of mass
communication.

This film comes along at a good time. Between technology and a grunge movement in
the 90s advertising design lost its way. We can blame media costs for pushing clients to
want to pack more information into their advertising, but media costs have always been
too high. If anything, with a fragmented audience, we should be leaner and simpler with
our message anyway.

This argument is further supported by another timely re-visit to the white space
argument. In a 2006 article in the Journal of Consumer Research, academics John W.
Pracejus, G. Douglas Olsen and Thomas C. O’Guinn prove the value of negative pace
in an article entitled, “How Nothing Became Something: White Space Rhetoric, History,
and Meaning”

I’ll save you the details, consumers perceive messages with greater white space to
come from brands that are leaders. They perceive higher quality, prestige, trust, and
less risk when the only variable is the amount of white space itself. The executive
summary of this research: say less, you’ll get more out of it.

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