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

By Peter Cenedella

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IQ: The Political Issue

The United States of America is many things: a sovereign nation, a collection of individuals and a mosaic of diverse cultures trying to come together (and succeeding with surprising regularity). It’s a $15 trillion economic engine, an innovator in industry and an $11 trillion debtor. It’s also an international military power — depending on where you stand, a force for democracy and free markets, an invader of nations, a steadfast ally or a tough negotiator. It is all this and more. And one other thing: The United States is, undeniably, a global brand — a complicated, fascinating brand that is woven into the fabric of pretty much every life on the planet.

BRAND IDENTITY, NATIONAL IDENTITY

At Interbrand we believe in a definition of brand that transcends the products you sell or the logo you lead with. Brand is the identity at the heart of an entity, its very core. All other factors being equal, brand will elevate one product over another to win the allegiance of the consuming public. Interbrand has been instrumental in pioneering an understanding of brand as the holistic identity of an organization, the way it speaks and moves in the world, what it says and how it behaves.

The stronger brands can drive people’s loyalty and ultimately command a premium in the marketplace. When it comes to a nation like the US, the analogy would be the degree to which its brand wins over hearts and minds, driving people’s allegiance domestically and, in the global arena, creating a sense that this is a nation with ideas and attitudes worth emulating, products worth purchasing and ideals worth enshrining. This has often translated into democratic movements, open markets and a passion for American products, symbols, and cultural artifacts, from our movies and our music to our fashion and our fast food.

The irony of branding is that for any organization to maximize its commercial success, it must ultimately find its heart and soul — the higher reason it bothers to bring its goods to market. For Nike, it’s the belief that “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” That simple, potent notion has driven not just industry leadership in the sneaker trade, but a profound, empowering shift in cultural norms and attitudes about fitness, body image, sports, and personal motivation.

Starbucks found its purpose not simply in a cup of coffee, but in the insight that people’s complicated lives required a “third space” away from the rigors of work and the demands of family — a place where socializing and “me time,” where music and a moment to savor, could help us rejuvenate and recharge. Starbucks sells more coffee than Peet’s not so much because of what’s in the cup, but the context that surrounds it: the brand.

There may be athletic shoes that fit you better or perform just as well; there might be coffee you would prefer in a blind taste test. But the success of Nike and Starbucks attest to the power of brand to elevate a product because it is carried aloft on the arms of something more important: an idea.

So what is the idea behind Brand America?

Every four years we have an intriguing, messy public argument about that very question. Centuries before social media, Americans found any platform, from midnight rides and town criers to massive, hand cranked Guttenberg printing presses, to have an ongoing discussion about what the brand idea at the heart of America really is. We have been inventing and arguing about this in inky broadsheets and village squares, in books and newspapers and over the airwaves, on TV and the internet, for centuries.

That season is upon us again, big time. On the eve of the 2012 presidential election, Brand America, is seemingly ailing. In this article and the series that follows, we at Interbrand cast an eye over the political brandscape, and try to assess the strength of this venerable, vital brand.

BRAND ARCHITECTURE AND THE CORPORATE NATION

The United States is, not coincidentally, structured much like a corporation. After all, the nation rose along with the corporation, and is an expression in many ways of the mercantile experience and the Enlightenment ideas that gave rise to early corporate ventures. The American colonies were a crucible for much of the artisanal capitalism that has informed the growth of small business, as well as the home of great port cities where capital accumulated and the corporations grew dominant. Our political history and the theory of how corporations can and should work are, safe to say, completely inseparable, like two genetic strands linked in their spirals.

Because the US shares so much of its DNA with the modern corporation, then it stands to reason that a modern view of the structure and role of brand in the life of an organization is highly applicable to the US. It follows, too, that sound brand management, strategic leverage of brand assets and credible migration of brand equities over time — across history — would tend to be critical to the health of the country. Election season 2012 is an opportune moment to examine just how Brand America is doing in the management of its considerable assets.

Brand America has a complex brand architecture that includes at least four classes of distinct and extremely potent sub-brands. Like the regional sub-brands of North and South, Slave State and Free State, that proved irreconcilable in the 19th century, some of these sub-brands have identities and brand ideas so strong that they can, in fact, seem to contradict each other, always threatening to carry the larger masterbrand, and with it the entire organization, into conflict.

First, each branch of government may be seen as a separate business unit, and in fact the founders of this complicated organization were wise enough to build in by-laws, if you will, known to all basic civics class graduates as checks and balances. Hence the executive, legislative, and judicial branches each have a separate identity, calibrated in such a delicate manner that none can dominate the others for long.

Second, consider that the US is also a holding company of sorts that “contains multitudes,” as Walt Whitman put it. Brand America, with its many mergers and acquisitions of distinct ethnic groups, can lay a credible claim to being a mosaic of diverse cultures. M&A is in fact an apt metaphor here, as it is the rare M&A venture that runs smoothly. Furthermore, most require a great degree of intentionality and focus, and there are inevitably some casualties along the way.

Brand America’s commitment to ethnic dynamism (mergers) and assimilation (acquisitions) is unrivaled, and has provided the basis for much of the nation’s health and longevity by constantly replenishing our workforce, our sense of innovation and our PR bona fides worldwide. The halo effect we receive globally as the nation where all classes, colors and creeds come to make something new of their lives and hand something more to the next generation is a part of our brand narrative that serves us well on many fronts.

Third, there are, of course, potent “personal brands” that rise and fall in the life of the larger brand. Lincoln, FDR, JFK and Reagan are four particularly influential examples, though by no means is this category limited to presidents. These personal brands are analogous to game-changing CEOs like Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca, who steer their organizations through treacherous shoals, spin them into new directions or galvanize the workforce and offer clarity and definition.

Then, finally, there’s the elephant — and the donkey — in the room: the two sub-brands of the major political parties. As sub-brands, The Republican Party and the Democratic Party have always had their own stories, their own ideas (or ideologies), with whole streams of separate products (policies) cascading from their identities.

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FYIQ

  • ABOUT PETER CENEDELLA
    Peter Cenedella is Editorial Director, IQ, and 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

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