Branding and the upcoming U.S. presidential election

The News & Observer (January 8, 2008) recently published a negative article about branding in the political arena, “Choosy voters choose to go beyond branding.” It’s about the “fusion of ‘branding’ and politics that characterizes not only the way candidates and consultants pitch campaigns to the public, but also the way many of us now see public life.” The author calls this fusion “branditics.”

The author argues that “branditics” reduces the complexity of politics to simplistic messages, and says “Brands work better in grocery stores than in the White House.”

The writer understands branding well: It is indeed “the process of taking something on a shelf or in an office park and transforming it into an emotional experience that pulls us in, makes us believe, inspires us to buy. A strong brand captures, compresses and conveys an organization's values, the promise of its products and the guarantee of a consistent customer experience.”

However, he does not believe that potential presidents should be sold like “cans of Coke.” He does not believe that we should be content with oversimplified labels such as “security” for Giuliani, “competency” for Clinton, “faith” for Huckabee, or “hope” for Obama.

The problem, he says, is that branding closes off choices for the candidates whereas they need “room to maneuver,” to be flexible.

I have to disagree with this author. I think the candidates, particularly Obama, Clinton, and Giuliani, are doing a great job branding themselves for public consumption. In an election where it is sometimes hard to tell apart the candidates’ positions on complex issues, we need a shortcut that helps us define who we may be voting for. Branding doesn’t close off choices for the candidates, it merely encapsulates exactly who they are, what they value, what they promise to the American people, and how they will make that experience consistent.

Related to this is the question of “rebranding America”—which candidate will be the best at giving the U.S. the image makeover many feel it needs? Some feel that it is Obama, because of his race—“A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy”—they believe that America needs a nonwhite president to convey the message that we are not Anglo-elitists bent on dominating the world. I think that is certainly a possibility. A Clinton presidency would, to me, have a similar effect—in electing a female we would be sending a strong message about our beliefs in equality and diversity and those beliefs are far-reaching. Would electing Giuliani be good for the U.S. brand? Probably not—right now we need to project an image of world diplomacy, not stubbornness and being closed off to other nations and other views. How about McCain? I say, eh—I don’t get much of a brand image there, other than that he’s sort of a standard Republican, whatever that means. And in my view none of the other candidates really stand much of a chance right now…if they do at some later time then I’ll weigh in on their brand image.

Any way you look at it, branding is really critical right now in the U.S. elections. It’s an overall positive for the voter, who gets to make more meaningful choices, and it’s a way to hold candidates accountable to some philosophy or value system that they will have to stick with. It is further a way to help the American voter decide what kind of image they want to project in the world as a nation, and now is a critical time for that kind of decision to take place.