Positioning a President: A Marketing Case Study (Part 1)

by Holland-Mark | January 27, 2012

Holland-Mark’s branding approach is based on the observation that people have a tendency to boil things down to One Simple Thing™. We all do it, it’s part of our genetic code and an important adaptation to a modern world overrun by complexity. We do this not only for brands (Volvo = Safety, BMW = Performance, Zappos = Service,) but for Movies (Rocky = Inspired, Notebook = Chick Flick, Platoon = Intense Downer,) Musical Artists (Elvis = Rock & Roll, Sinatra = Swinging Crooner, Katy Perry = Catchy Tune / Body of A Comic Book Villain,) and just about everything else.

We even do it for political candidates.

If you’d asked people immediately after the last Presidential election why they voted for Barack Obama, few would have cited specific attributes, anecdotes, or policies. Most people would have said one word: “Change.” Change was what people wanted after 8 years of George W. Bush, with the economy in shambles, our civil liberties in peril, and our reputation in tatters around the world. You can of course argue with that characterization, but you can’t argue that Change is the single idea the Obama campaign spent every nickel and minute on from the time he announced to the time he won. It was who he was by that November – an almost perfect vessel for the Change “One Simple Thing” (“OST” for short) – and as a result he ran away with the election against a man with objectively superior qualifications, who’d lacked focus and communications discipline from the word go.

Now we find ourselves 4 years later, and as a sitting President, Change is off the table for Barack & Co. So where will they go, re-positioning brand Obama for a weary, divided, and universally troubled electorate? How will the opposition respond? What will each side choose as their OST, or – in the case of candidates who lack the insight and discipline to choose – what OST will we the people assign to them?

This will be the first in a series of posts trying to answer these questions, and perhaps more importantly, to use this archetypal and epic battle to explore the power of positioning, the role of emotion, and the power of brands in the way YOUR customers “vote” for you, or somebody else.

Round I: The Early Republican Primaries

Let’s start with the drop-outs:

  • Michelle Bachman shot for Conservative, but ended up Crazy thanks to that Newsweek cover shot. Buh-bye.
  • Rick Perry’s OST? I’d say Texas. The Texas Economic Miracle, Texas social policy, Texas accent, Texas lack of squeamishness over killin’ bad guys win they jus’ need killin.’ This was dumb on a few levels, not the least of which was Ol’ Dubya himself. More than that, the rest of the country is a little dubious on Texas, so soon after Rick’s media close-up… adios, amigo.
  • Jon Huntsman’s failure was never getting to an OST, never focusing his message enough to break through the noise. As a result he left himself open to the OSTs his rivals painted on him, the most sticky and deadly of which was, sadly for Jon, Moderate. And how’d that turn out? Zai zian, Jon.

This last dynamic is common in a political fight, and we’ll see it repeated over and over in the race this year. The game is not only to paint the right OST on yourself, but to paint a deadly OST on your opponent. More on this in later posts.

Winnowing of the above got us to the current field, which I’d handicap as follows:

  • Ron Paul. Tricky, but I’d say he’s shooting for True, and ending up in the neighborhood of Purist. True doesn’t stick because most people don’t understand what he’s talking about. But you know he believes it, that he always has, and that he’s in no mood for compromise. Ron believes, whether he’s right or not. Hence Purist, which I don’t think is going to serve him well. We’ll see.
  • Rick Santorum – Conservative. Period. We’ll see how that goes down in the GOP, but it’s a guaranteed loser in the general election. You heard it here.
  • Mitt Romney’s OST is the easiest of the bunch, and it’s CEO. Mitt’s kind of come to terms with it, and is trying to leverage it as a credential for getting us out of the mess we’re in. Trouble is, most Americans don’t like CEOs. And most Republicans, it seems, don’t like Mitt.
  • Newt Gingrich is another easy one: Fight. Newt is just spoiling for a fight, always. And you know… so are a lot of Republicans these days. It’s the only explanation for the Newt phenomenon, which the mainstream media seems still trying to unpack.

Getting the flow here? Am I right? And either way… What’s your take?

Stay tuned for next week’s installment: Round II: The State of the Union

This post originally appeared on bostinno.com on January 26, 2012.