President Obama and Clint Eastwood, Masters of Positioning

In "What Marketers Can Learn From Obama's Campaign," "positioning" (branding) master Al Ries explained how effective marketing helped the President go from being a relative unknown to the most powerful person on the planet.

At this year's Republican convention, actor Clint Eastwood gave a speech that has provoked viral interest and much controversy in the blogosphere as to whether it worked or not, or was smart or not, or what it was. Some even called it "bizarre" while others said it was "genius."

Below are some comments Ries made about the 2008 Obama campaign's successful use of positioning, and how the Eastwood speech - of course, just one moment in time - matches up.

1. Own a simple, relevant, credible-for-the-brand idea in one word. In the Obama campaign, this was "change." No "ands," commas, subheads like his competitors. It was relevant because people thought the country was "headed in the wrong direction." It was credible because President Obama had always stood for the populist message he espoused.

In the Eastwood speech, the idea was also simple, relevant, and credible for him - "AWOL" - Because Eastwood has perfected the character in the movies who takes responsibility and takes care of business. Whether he was "right" or "wrong" is not the point. What matters is that Eastwood had the cultural capital to say what he said, and then he stepped up and "owned" it.

Also, says Ries, keep it as simple as the audience wants it. Hollywood elites, which tend to lean Democratic, joked about it; media elites called it "rambling."But he wasn't talking to them. Rather, Eastwood was targeting the average voter. As the Daily Caller points out:
"What media critics heard as unprepared, bumbling and rambling prattle, millions of Americans heard as an expression of their frustration with...lethargy and political divisiveness."
2. Claim to be different - not better. Ries points out that President Obama was not claiming to be the best at change, but only to identify himself with it. The benefit of claiming difference is that you automatically own the position you claim when someone tries to challenge it. (Everybody claims to be better so this is not memorable.) And when you are a "first-minder" (first to occupy the position in the mind), you are "almost always the winner," says Ries.

Side note: In a separate post Ries notes that when you own the point of difference you become the category leader, even as competition challenges you. (If the competition gets too hot you have to start a new brand in order to be different again.)

In the Eastwood speech, as the New York Times points out, the actor did not exactly brief out the Republican team before he pulled out the now-legendary chair. His "brand messaging" surprised everyone, including the candidate's staff - and that made him a first mover. However, it did not make him a "first minder" because the message was inherently an attack on somebody else's position rather than an assertion of a new one.

Recall that the Romney campaign slogan and GOP convention theme was "We Built It," which is a different, reactive statement - responding to a Democratic message. Similarly, the President sent a reactive Tweet in response to the Eastwood speech: "This chair is taken."

3. Stick to it and then repeat yourself. Do not deviate or change the basic idea. (Every time you do that, you fragment your message and lose uniqueness and attention.) Say that word you are faithful to, over and over again, until the idea is associated with you. The Obama campaign did that. And in his speech, Eastwood did it too, first with the visual theme of the empty chair, and then by speaking to it and for it, over and over again, as though the President were articulating statements typical of weak or absent leadership.

As one looks at these techniques from opposing sides of the aisle side-by-side, it is possible to get a glimpse from an agnostic point of view about what makes brand communication (of any kind, including political) work or not work*.

*Note: This blog is not a political endorsement of any party or candidate, but rather a commentary about communication technique.