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:
- Avoid the past. That’s where brands go to die.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.