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State of the (Dis)Union: Brand Architecture, Storytelling, and Election 2012 (Cont'd)

By Peter Cenedella

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IQ: The Political Issue
FROM DELICATE BALANCE TO DISUNION

There are always internal conflicts within any brand, discussions and differences that serve in part as a motor to drive progress. Debate is healthy, and many board meetings have their share of disagreement, every C-suite home to competing visions. It’s when healthy disagreement turns to discord that an organization is in trouble. The larger question for Brand America this election season is whether the fractiousness and disharmony reflects a historic trend away from a single, unifying brand idea.

By now the differences between the parties are all too well-known, and the ad nauseum counter charges (“Treason!” “False equivalency!”) echo loudly in the land. Consider: Was there a time when the Democratic brand and the Republican brand, distinctive as they were, both subsumed themselves to the larger Brand America? It’s frighteningly difficult to imagine. Were a company to be so riven with internal conflict, it is likely to come apart at the seams.

In fact, from a brand management standpoint, it might be fair to say that Brand America would be a job too tough for even the most savvy CMO. And yet, among the masterbrand assets you’d be in charge of stewarding were you to accept the offer: signal documents of human liberty from the Declaration of Independence to the Bill of Rights; the world’s oldest democracy; and ideas that inspired citizens from all over the world across centuries to leave behind everything they’ve known and take a chance in a strange new land.

The challenge is clear. Brand America, with its unrivaled array of equities, needs an architecture adjustment. As a brand consultancy, we might suggest that the masterbrand has been overpowered by the two sub-brands of the parties. The brand is, therefore, leading with its weakest assets, and allowing its most precious holdings to get lost in the loud and acrimonious public debates.

It’s as if Kellogg’s were to allow an online flame war between partisans of Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies to overtake the entire product line in he public imagination. When one thinks how ridiculous that would be, then applies that back to Brand America, perhaps we can begin to see just how absurd the present conundrum really is.

BRAND STORYTELLING, NATIONAL STORYTELLING

Quick – name a brand so big, with an array of ideas as vast as its product line, that by its very nature it cannot tell only one story? Extra credit if you can think of one that sometimes contradicts itself.

Google comes to mind, with its try-anything approach and an openness to innovation that often trumps consistency. It could be argued that the genius of Google’s brand is how malleable it is, not unlike the adaptable, pragmatic approach that has defined the USA for much of its history. After all, were we not, like Google, a bold and somewhat seat-of-the-pants experiment that took off, an exercise in practical self-determination that tended to downplay ideology for the sake of success?

Even more germane to the current state of Brand USA, Google has a noble creation story involving insurrectionist youths, not unlike the bold American colonists of the 18th century, making the next great power out of pluck and timing — again, a familiar American story. We all know the noble ideal at the heart of Google’s brand identity: Don’t Be Evil.

The growing pains associated with Google largely amount to the difficulties of maintaining such a noble ideal as you scale up and settle in to a long, competitive maturity. That challenge in many ways comes down to storytelling.

Brand America’s once solid storytelling seems strangely frayed and fractious. The messages we broadcast to the world, the voice in which we speak, the visual style we use to represent ourselves and our global strategic policies all seem rife with inconsistencies and internal conflicts.

What’s a superpower brand to do?

When Brand America burst on the scene in the 18th century, it had what every brand needs: a great brand idea and a compelling story. The story was one of overcoming the dominant global power, like David beating back Goliath, to establish a new country where the old notions of class and caste would have less sway than the virtues of hard work and determination.

Our brand idea was to transcend the old ideologies of the monarchies from which we sprang, to embrace pragmatism rooted in the Enlightenment, where success or failure was largely in one’s own hands. It was a brand vision fueled by abundant soil and plentiful real estate, and a belief in the ever-receding frontier as the crucible in which men could prove themselves.

Neither political party can possibly come up with a story as compelling as that of the larger Brand America. Yet, both have become louder and more insistent than the masterbrand. We once wove a yarn that was as compelling as any creation myth, as inspiring as a hundred Hollywood endings and more powerful than our military. That brand story was about possibility, opportunity, self-creation, and a can-do spirit that transcended the ideological to elevate the outcome. The outcome was simple: success.

Every brand has had a tricky transition to make in recent years to the accelerated, hyper-transparent digital world. Brand America is no different. The Gap’s logo debacle, Google’s capitulation to Chinese censorship and BP’s embarrassing response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster are but three examples of the real-time power of the crowd to pass judgment on brands.

Meanwhile, in the realm of politics, the court of public opinion is always in vociferous session. The 24-hour-a-day news juggernaut leaves a trail of exploded trial balloons and policy positions. Storytelling is not a unidirectional broadcast in 21st-century, post-everything politics any more than it is in the world of commerce.

But to cede the story of Brand America to the sub-brands of the parties is like inviting an ideological spitting match to overtake your living room. It is not lofty, nor is it healthy, and it will ultimately erode the brand.

THE SERIES

With this crisis of storytelling and this broken brand architecture as our backdrop, we invite you to read—and participate in—the series of blog posts and articles that follow. We ask you, in the spirit of democracy and transparency, to share your thoughts and ideas about branding and politics. We’ll hear from Digital Verbal Identity Consultant David Trahan on what it means to represent a political brand. What are the new challenges of being the face of an American sub-brand? Brand Strategist Mudi Diejomoah will explore how one might apply brand valuations to candidates and party platforms, including a look at new entrants to the brandscape in the form of third parties. Brand Strategist Mike Leahy will discuss performance vs. perception and brand expectations.

Finally, David Trahan and Verbal Identity Associate Tom Shanahan will explore the way social listening helps us gain insight into the candidates’ ability to channel the crowd noise and craft a winning narrative. And stay tuned: After the next president is inaugurated, Trahan and Verbal Identity/Digital Director Nora Geiss will assess the challenging road ahead for the 45th president of not only the United States, but the 45th CEO of Brand America.

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FYIQ

  • ABOUT PETER CENEDELLA
    Peter Cenedella is Associate Director, Verbal Identity, Interbrand New York

    What’s one thing you would change about the world if you could? Peter answered: To change the world, you have to change the kinds of people who come of age in it. To do this, I would flip the script on the way we think about the arts, and about testing, in our approach to education. Rather than visual art, music, and creative writing being treated as a luxury at schools, and first to the budgetary chopping block, I would elevate the arts, celebrate them, and infuse them into all curriculum from K-12, including the way we teach math, science, and social studies. Will there be a test on this? Yeah: CREATE SOMETHING! peter.cenedella@interbrand.com
    @wordbringer.

  • BRANDING THE CANDIDATES
    Branding_Candidates
  • STORYTELLERS UNITE!