Functional vs. Emotional Branding in the 2012 Campaign

Maybe “branding” is a relatively new word for the mainstream, but the use of it in politics is old. They called it other things, probably – I couldn't tell you. But there's no doubt that the great political consultants are the equivalent of great brand strategists. Some examples: Roger Ailes, Dick Morris, Frank Luntz.

I still remember watching The McLaughlin Group as a kid, especially Eleanor Clift and Pat Buchanan as they battled it out in “Round 1” and “Round 2,” the tiny speck of time allotted to every issue on Sunday mornings.

Today, I don't watch the news primarily to find out what's happening – there is the Internet for that. I watch to see how the various political commentators, media veterans, and subject matter experts debate how the speech (or blooper) of the day will affect this person or that.

My absolute favorite, a rarity nowadays, is to see James Carville and Mary Matalin interviewed together, because Carville is a Democrat and Matalin is a Republican, and they're married.

Some people like to watch football games, or boxing. I like being a paraprofessional pundit, watching these TV “debates” as though they were boxing games, scoring them in my mind. Sometimes the family watches with me and then it's fun to compare notes.

In any case, I know that branding is mainstream today because my mother clipped a column from the local paper on “personal branding” and gave it to me. In the realm of politics, it definitely got a jump start with the Reagan years, but when I joined the government it still wasn't something people really “got” instinctively.

At that time (2003), for most people, I think the perception of government was closer to the massively popular TV show The West Wing – which portrayed the incredibly complicated nature of trying to do the “right thing” while still managing the many crises, including image crises, that could pull the Administration off track.

Another show that influenced my thinking was the TV show 24, whichfurther dramatized not only the tough calls a President has to make, but the impossibility of promising full transparency. The show depicted how, over and over again, the rules and procedures already in place could not match the evolving terrorist technologies and threats that sought to bring the country down.

The actual 2008 Presidential Campaign, with its expert use of branding, was so masterful that it actually became a case study in the marketing textbook I used at University of Maryland University College.

All of this is by way of saying that the traditional political campaign is dominated by branding, whether it's called by that name or not.

* Primary tactic: “Emotional” - i.e. to connect the candidate with the populace.

* Secondary tactic (usually): “Functional” - an effort to convey that the candidate has a better skill set.

Normally functional value is secondary for a few reasons, but primarily that the details are too “wonky” for most people to understand or care about, and secondarily if you're smart you can usually make a case either way.

What sets this election apart is that one side is focused on emotional branding as per tradition, while the other is zooming in on the functional branding tactic and making it primary. Can it work? This was the question asked on TV by Bill Kristol at the GOP convention.

From a political communication perspective, I am not sure. Assuming that the two parties are trying to split the baby in half – one “owning” style, one “owning” substance – does this really leave either of them responding effectively to the consumer demands (if we can put it that way) of the moment?

This “baby is split” ambivalence is visible in the following ideas, which to me represent the “mood of the moment,” still unresolved:

1) While it's true that the economy is bad, it's not worth sacrificing civil rights or promoting a culture where it's acceptable to abandon the poor and weak.

2) We're willing to work hard and sacrifice for the sake of progress, but we don't want to be taken advantage of by the ruling classes.

3) We want to help the needy and weak, but don't want to encourage a culture of dependency.

4) We are willing to trust political and business leaders, but we have seen a lot of scandals and are not fully ready to trust what they're saying.

5) We don't have enough information to tell who's telling the truth, since the mainstream media is biased, social media is unreliable, and it's hard to get information from the government you can really use.

The CEO of Panera, Ron Shaich, was on Fox the other day saying basically this. He called the problem “the political class” - he did not name one party or another – and voiced his doubt at their ability to actually solve problems. i.e., their jobs.

Shaich said in the end, he is accountable to the laws of profit and loss. Make money and keep going. Lose it and go out of business. Implication: Need to run the country the same way.

Note that Panera is an incredibly socially responsible company – not only giving back to the community but pioneering a cafe concept where you “give what you can, take what you need.”

While it's not clear how the election will shake out, one thing does seem clear to me. People are repeating over and over again that they are sick of divisiveness, that they feel it has now gotten in the way of actually moving forward to real solutions. This coincides with the trend toward hyper-customization – epitomized by the popularity of Pinterest - in which the person cherry-picks from this and from that to create a patchwork of brands that is truly “them.”

From a communication perspective, this election is like a graduate seminar in progress. 

On a personal note, I feel in my heart how very dangerous a time we are in, and pray that G-d has mercy on us as we move forward to the future.*

*Note – This blog is intended as a commentary on communication, and does not represent a political commentary, endorsement or non-endorsement of any candidate or party.