Candidates' brand attributes factor into voters' decisions

Ever since Joe McGinniss' 1968 The Selling of the President about the packaging of Richard Nixon, the candidate-as-product has been a recurring campaign-coverage theme. Candidates are launched, positioned, and advertised like products.

Ever since Joe McGinniss' 1968 The Selling of the President about the packaging of Richard Nixon, the candidate-as-product has been a recurring campaign-coverage theme. Candidates are launched, positioned, and advertised like products.

Ever since Joe McGinniss’ 1968 “The Selling of the President” about the packaging of Richard Nixon, the candidate-as-product has been a recurring theme in presidential campaign coverage. Candidates are “launched,” “positioned,” and “advertised” like products. With the current obsession with product “branding,” candidates are now also looking to their own brand strengths and attributes.

Candidate brands matter because voters, like consumers, have neither the time nor the inclination to study each offering in detail in order to make a fully informed choice. Brands are shorthand for the attributes that speak to a consumer’s psychic or emotional needs. Am I an environmentally sensitive outdoorsy type? Patagonia must be the brand for me.

So, what are the frontrunners’ brand attributes? John McCain is the “straight-talker” – the un-politician. But, McCain thought he so owned this positioning that he could take chances with it. Among other conventional political moves, he courted the religious right that he had previously challenged. The result was extreme brand confusion and dilution -- roughly comparable to Starbucks getting caught running coffee “sweat-fields” in Columbia. To reclaim his brand, McCain is now taking extremely unpopular positions like wanting more, not less, war in Iraq. Good luck with that, John.

Rudy Giuliani’s principle brand attribute is strong leadership. This brand’s iconic moment was, of course, 9-11 when he courageously marched to Ground Zero while the President circled cautiously overhead. Strong leadership is always a powerful attribute for a presidential candidate. And, while 9-11 is the brand’s “logo,” it is given depth by Giuliani’s willingness to take on everyone from labor unions to “squeegee terrorists” in his successful effort to remake Gotham into a livable city. He continues to reinforce the brand by standing up to the social conservatives in his own party on issues like abortion, gun control, and gay rights.

Barak Obama owns a brand attribute that is always strong in commercial and political markets – “new” or “fresh.” Voters are unhappy with the war in Iraq, political bickering, the direction of the country, and the incumbent President. Being “fresh” carries enormous emotional appeal. But, recent political history is littered with “fresh” candidates who went stale – think Howard Dean, Ross Perot, and Gary Hart. Staying fresh through a full campaign cycle – particularly the extended 2006 cycle – will be difficult, if not impossible. Obama’s brand managers should be checking their candidate’s “pull date” and preparing for some re-branding.

Hillary Clinton is an exercise in brand extension (if you liked Bill, you’ll love Hillary). That strategy worked for George W. Bush but, because of that, may not work as well this time. Clinton has two sets of brand attributes. To insiders, she is “inevitable” (better get on the bandwagon). To voters, she is “experienced” – an audacious claim by one of the least experienced candidates in either party.

Whatever brand attributes the remaining candidates may want to claim, they are most likely stuck with “loser.” Even when the media cover their campaigns, the tone is “nice guy likely to finish last – if at all.” And, who has the strongest brand growth potential? The brands that have yet to be introduced – a couple boys from Tennessee.

Greg Schneiders is a founding partner of Prime Group, a consultancy that specializes in helping clients understand, plan, and execute change. Greg@primegroupllc.com.

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