Job number one for presidential candidates: define yourself - before someone else does

Every presidential campaign has a theme. These candidates will very soon have to figure out how they want to define themselves before their opponents do it for them.

While we are barely into 2015, the only thing anyone in the political world can talk about – with the possible exception of the most watched Super Bowl in history – is the 2016 presidential election.

Since the first days of January, we have seen candidates gear up with staff and resources while criss-crossing the country giving speeches to potential donors and supporters in early primary states.

This pre-stage of mounting a campaign is certainly important, but the coming stage will be even more vital, as it is the period during which candidates define and brand themselves, as well as contrast their records and experience against potential opponents.

Every presidential campaign has a theme or slogan. These candidates will very soon have to figure out how they want to define themselves before their opponents do it for them.

Some of history’s most famous slogans defined the candidate and the time. In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s slogan was "A time for greatness." It positioned him as the new young man America needed to bring it forward. Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan asked the country: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The country apparently didn’t think so and sided with him.

White House aspirants must understand branding is just as important in politics as it is in marketing. Candidates present themselves as a brand. Once tarnished, recovery is very difficult.

In our most recent election, President Obama defined himself with "Forward," enhancing his already chosen positioning of "Hope and change" from his first run in 2008. Strategically, his team chose to focus more on defining his opponent, Mitt Romney, early in the campaign as a rich and out-of-touch economic royalist who couldn’t connect with the American people. Whether this was true or not was not as important as whether it resonated with voters. And it did. Romney was constantly on the defensive and had a tough time shedding the caricature his rival slapped on him.

Bringing the focus back to the present. Hillary Clinton is fortunate enough – for the moment – to have some time to find her message because of the current lack of competition on the Democratic front. Republicans, on the other hand, must fight out a bloody primary. For top contenders such as Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio, among others, the race to define who they are, what they stand for, and what their message will be has already begun. They will have to separate themselves from the pack – and prepare for the attacks that will come their way.

This is all easier said than done. With talented and accomplished candidates scrambling for position, throwing around vague words such as "executive," "experienced," and "conservative" isn’t nearly good enough. The key to a candidate’s brand is not just a pithy slogan or a pretty sign – it’s how a candidate’s message meshes into the American consciousness at the precise time.

Reagan argued it was "Morning In America." Obama called for "Change." Both men embodied their campaigns on those simple messages. They captured what citizens wanted and convinced the American people it’s what they needed. Today’s candidates must do the same.

Talk about a defining moment. On every level, that is exactly what it is for candidates right now. News cycles, talking points, and events will come and pass, but a candidate’s brand must never waver. The individual most successful at pinpointing what the American people care about most – the economy, foreign policy, the environment, or a given social issue – while stamping their own personal brand on that is the one most likely to win next November.

Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. He can be reached at

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