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Branding in Presidential Campaigns: Part 2

By David Trahan and Tom Shanahan

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Branding in Presidential Campaigns Part 2

Imagine you’re the starting quarterback in the Super Bowl. You practice and perfect your game plan and analyze every angle necessary to ensure you win the game. You have a plan of attack for the final play, and you call “hike.” Presidential campaigns call “hike” at the convention and throughout the debates, evade an opponent trying to intercept the pass at every look. All they need is to get to the end zone and win those points – 270, to be exact.

During an election season presidential quarterbacks are more than just candidates. They are brands that need to be sold to the American people. The debate season in presidential politics can be likened to a snap at the 20-yard line, with the end zone in sight, and a number of things that could go wrong.

All throughout the campaign season, candidates craft their messaging through a playbook – they run drills, and master their narrative like a solid team, hoping to win the game. Everything is organized to a tee, but once the ball is snapped at the respective conventions, a great deal of planning can go out the window. They’re no longer scrimmaging against their own team in practice. New topics and themes arise during debates on national television, and if candidates fumble here, they’ve got to get the ball back – and quick.

That’s largely what happened to the Romney and Obama candidate brands this fall. They hiked the ball, and then were just looking for a guy that was open. Sometimes they dropped the ball (as Obama did in the first debate), sometimes they threw a hail Mary (coming back harder, as Obama did in the second). That’s messaging in a debate setting – live, unpredictable and always entertaining.

One thing that is interesting about the debates is that messaging does not hold has much weight as brand voice. The candidates don’t have as much of an uninterrupted opportunity to present their messages (with the exception of their closing statements), and so brand voice is what really matters.

We know that in branding, how you say something is just as much, if not more, important than what you actually say. So it was telling to see so much of the candidates’ performance judged on their voices rather than their content.

For Obama, this was arguably most felt after their first debate, where (while his messaging was largely consistent and strong), his voice and persona completely dominated the conversation around his performance, and his brand equity took a dive. For Romney, it was quite the opposite. The polling showed that swing voters largely didn’t notice that his messaging had been changed in lieu of the fact that his voice was strong, confident, and – yes – presidential. So what did Obama do wrong?

The President was cast as a figure in 2008 and largely in 2012 as someone who can rejuvenate crowds and inspire an audience. “Hope and change” doesn’t just come about by accident, and wouldn’t have survived ’08 if it didn’t have a charming orator behind it. Even if his messaging failed, his voice almost always saved him. He could work off of the crowd and really build a personality on stage.

Unfortunately, that crowd wasn’t able to help him during the first debate. Unlike house or senate campaign debates where the crowd has more freedom to react, or town hall formatted debates, the audience must stay silent during the presidential debates. Thus, the candidates can’t use them to their advantage. They can’t play to the crowd; it’s all on them.

Obama slipped in the first debate because he didn’t react on his feet to the messages coming from the other side. To be a successful brand you need to think on your feet when you’re surprised, and you need to stay consistent. Obama’s passion was simply not there in the first debate, so his brand consistency took a hit. The person, the brand, the public thought they knew, didn’t show up.

There was an opportunity to capitalize on the shift in Romney’s messaging, reinforcing the Obama campaign’s narrative that Romney lacked commitment to positions. Obama could have really worked off of this, but he didn’t and his own lackluster voice overshadowed his performance.

Romney’s messaging during the first debate could be seen as a gutsy move. He reversed much of the work he’d done in the primaries and 2012 campaign to reach out to the conservative base of the Republican Party, moving his stand on issues significantly to the right of where he’d stood in previous campaigns. Yet the response to his debate performance was not on this new shift, but the strength of his brand voice. He was confident and unshaken; he stared the president down and he came out on top.

The second debate was a closer match. Obama was able to use the town hall setting to his advantage, and he could use intangibles such as body language to his favor. Here he could work off the audience, even though they still couldn’t cheer – similar to Clinton in ’91 against Bush 41. Obama could now walk up to the audience; you could see his classic brand voice return. He was able to be the cool and confident leader that the people elected in 2008.

Romney’s brand stayed consistent in the second debate, one of the most important elements of brand strength. Although he may not have been as strong going up against Obama as he was in the first debate, his brand largely remained in tact by showing the same calm, presidential aura that he had in the first.

So what did that mean? Who outperformed? Since these two brand voices weren’t so far apart from one another in the second debate, there was room for messaging to hold more weight.

Arguably the most important point of the second debate was when Romney fumbled the facts about Obama’s response to the terror attacks in Benghazi. That gave the President an opportunity to clarify his own brand, and the brand that he had been trying to paint of his competitor -- one of the shoot first, as questions later order. While Romney’s brand voice kept him performing strong in both debates, Obama’s rejuvenated voice and messaging allowed him to outperform in the second debate.

The third debate convinced voters that Romney had found his brand voice. Something he struggled with throughout the whole campaign was finally solidified. That of the conservative, plain, problem solver who just wants to fix things. He doesn’t need jokes or songs, he just needed to be straightforward and clear. Finally, during the debates, the public saw that candidate. In terms of his brand voice, the Etch-a-Sketch had finally disappeared.

He found a clear and distinguishable voice. The problem was, while his brand voice was stronger, he then lost his messaging. That which was firm and unique in the first two debates mirrored the President’s messaging in almost every way in the third debate. Differentiation, one of the key components to brand, had withered away.

Romney had to play to the general electorate, an audience that was wary of war and not looking for a hawkish candidate. Brands may share similarities in key areas, but must find a way to frame themselves as distinct from the competition. Candidate brands must build an argument that is differentiated from their opponent’s.

At Interbrand, we believe that brands have the power to change the world. It’s something that we truly believe and it’s why we get up, come to the office and try to create the next brand that the public will fall in love with. Brands have the power to change the world because they influence and have an effect on people, and this fact is perhaps no more important that in the brand of the president.

Our greatest leaders mold Brand U.S.A. Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy. When people think of these presidents, it’s the brand that they remember and admire. History elevates their brands beyond the individual behind them.

At the end of Election Day 2012 the voters chose the Obama brand to lead Brand America. The Romney brand and that of the Republican Party is facing questions about its messaging and calls for a rebranding. Where will Romney and the GOP brands go from here? What will the Obama brand legacy be? How will this brand shape Brand America for the next four years and change the world?


  • ABOUT David Trahan
    David Trahan is Consultant, Verbal Identity, Interbrand New York.

    What’s one thing you would change about the world if you could? David answered: I want people to have each other’s backs: fight back against a bully, give a dollar to the person on the corner, be courteous to others. I want people to stop being so individualistic and start thinking of every human being as part of their family.
  • ABOUT Tom Shanahan
    Tom Shanahan is Associate Consultant, Verbal Identity, Interbrand New York.

    What’s one thing you would change about the world if you could? Tom answered: In the short time that I’ve been on this planet, I’ve noticed two things.

    First, I tend to gravitate towards individuals who believe in achieving greatness beyond expectations – for themselves, and for others. And second, those individuals are frequently surrounded by those who don’t.

    That’s what I hope will change. Inspiration, passion, romance, hope, these are things that many don’t value anymore. They’ve been replaced with jadedness, cynicism, and a collective rolling of eyes. For what reason I don’t know. Don’t dismiss those who strive for something bigger. Don’t put down those who seek to lift others up. Ignore them if you don’t believe in them. But allow those who do to soak up the messages and ideas of the game changers and visionaries who want to make this world better than it is.

    Branding in Presidential Campaigns: Part 1