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  • Posted by: Nora Geiss and David Trahan on Tuesday, January 22 2013 08:36 PM | Comments (0)

    Swearing In

    Strong brands are predictive. Yes, they are built over time on a solid foundation and rely heavily on in-the-moment perception for success, but as economic assets they indicate the trajectory of a business and give insight into projected earnings for the coming years. This is why brands have real, tangible value: they tell us what to expect. Looking back at the evolution of Brand Obama from the 2008 campaign to Day One of the second presidential term, it looks like we can expect the next four years to be action packed.

    When we talk about what we expect from the brand of the American President, we are reminded of the one true hallmark that confers value to a brand: Trust. It’s built on promises kept; on a relationship that has value; on a set of experiences that share something familiar but never fail to deliver in ways that fulfill different needs. It’s tough to come by, particularly in politics, where the window of opportunity is small and every action is wrung through the partisan machine of opposing ideals. But it remains incredibly important to the success of the President:

    “Many people no longer believe this, but trust remains the coin of the realm in politics. A president who is trusted – by the people, by the congress, by the press, by foreign countries – is a president who can get a lot of good things done.” ~David Gergen, White House Advisor (Nixon / Reagan / Ford / Clinton Administrations)

    After four years in office, two election campaigns, big changes like the Affordable Care Act, and big challenges most recently manifest in the Fiscal Cliff debates and gun safety policy, what have we learned about the brand of President Barack Obama? What consistent core promise has been present through his 2008 campaign, his 2012 campaign to today, and how well has he delivered? In this new term, how does the brand indicate what the President will do to continue to meet the needs and demands of the American people and push us even further forward?

    The Promise

    Through his transformation from community organizer to Harvard Law Review president to state and then US Senator, we’ve seen Barack Obama build his brand around thinking big, calling for collaborative action and pursuing a genuine realization of equality in which every citizen has the same opportunity to achieve success. These foundational themes set him up as the guy who wouldn’t stand for “politics as usual,” who felt the people’s frustration with two-party gridlock, and who stood up to say that our future depended on a different approach to getting things done.

    This is the promise of Brand Obama: Progress above politics. We can make a better future for ourselves, but only if we work together, only if we strive to find more common ground than ways to draw lines in the sand.

    It’s a promise that resonated in the 2008 campaign through messages that inspired Americans to believe that there was hope, that we could change, that yes we can! rise to meet the challenges of our time. It’s a promise that fueled the dogged pursuit of the most historical policy changes of the first term, like healthcare reform and the end to enforcement of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It was still alive in the 2012 campaign, but tempered by a tone that said “don’t give up – we need to keep pushing forward to make the change we seek a reality.”

    Not every promise from the 2008 campaign has been kept; political watchdogs have called out financial reforms (US debt to China, executive pay, the mortgage crisis) and unemployment as areas that have so far failed to live up to expectations. Delivering the proof to back up the promise is critical to maintaining trust in the presidential brand. Without trust, there will be no way to reach beyond the constraints of traditional politics and move forward.

    The Way Forward

    Despite leaving some boxes unchecked on the to-do list drawn up in 2008, the promise itself has not changed. In his inauguration speech on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, President Barack Obama reinforced that “when times change, so must we; … now more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and as one people.” The call for setting aside our differences to move forward together beats steady within every speech.

    Brand Obama communicates a clear message, has a consistent storyline and sets itself apart with a differentiated approach - all elements common to strong brands that predictably perform well against their goals. So what does the brand promise of the President predict for the new term?

    Prioritizing decisive action over party politics.

    The tone set in the 2012 campaign was less about stirring hearts and more about getting the work done – and getting party-driven obstacles out of the picture. In his inauguration speech, the president made it clear which political tactics wouldn’t fly this time around, saying “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle… or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” In other words: Time to grow up. Expect to see a president less patient to play “compromise” and more likely to use executive action to make policy a reality, especially in dealing with public safety issues like gun control.

    An emphasis on the people’s role and our responsibility to act.

    The inauguration speech closed with a clear call to action: “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot delay.” This echoed earlier reminders that we the people have a responsibility to our shared goals as a nation: “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.” Not coincidentally, Organizing for Action, a group dedicated to pulling together local people and resources to initiate change on a grassroots level, was launched the day of the official swearing-in.

    A pursuit of lasting legacy.

    Legislation core to the original dreams of the presidential candidate we met in 2008 will come back to the battle grounds of Congress and the House. DREAM Act, here’s looking at you.

    If the predictive nature of strong brands plays out in this second term, it looks like we have a lot of hard work ahead – set to payoff the promise of change the American people bought into in 2008. The expectations have been set to a very high bar. It won’t be easy. But where there is trust, there is still hope.

    Nora Geiss is a Director, Verbal Identity & Digital, Interbrand New York. David Trahan is a Consultant, Verbal Identity, Interbrand New York.

    Source: The West Wing, Season 3: Special Episode (Documentary), 2001; Swearing in photo above from whitehouse.gov.

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  • Posted by: Mike Leahy on Tuesday, January 22 2013 06:47 PM | Comments (0)

    The GOP

    Interbrand believes brands exist to bring business strategy to life, and sees the Brand of the Republican Party at an inflection point. In the weeks since the US’s Election 2012 hand wringing and finger pointing has in large part taken the place of constructive rebranding conversations for the Republican party.

    Many have said the 2012 election should have been a referendum on Barack Obama and the Democratic Party (which had taken a significant hit in Congress during the 2010 election cycle). As voters entered the polls on November 6th, unemployment was at 7.9%, with some economists interpreting the data as understating the true state of affairs with so many electing to leave the workforce altogether. 

    This appeared to be the Republican’s race to lose; and they did a tremendous job of it. The GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections; this in a country that is commonly described as having a “center-right” disposition. Clearly voters are telling the party their preferences no longer align with what the party is offering.

    Other brands have faced similar challenges as market conditions and consumer behaviors have changed around them. Kodak’s failure to respond to digital photography led to its downfall. The irony is this 131-year-old film innovator that recently declared bankruptcy had the opportunity to lead in the digital space. In 1975 Kodak engineer Steve Sasson and his team invented what is now credited as the world’s first digital camera. Reportedly Kodak’s response to the presentation – “That’s cute, but don’t tell anyone about it.”

    Similarly, Nokia once dominated the cellular handset market, but missed the consumer shift to smartphones and has been desperately playing catch-up since. Some have called this Nokia’s do or die time. The Republican Party finds itself in a similar position as pundits from across the political spectrum ask if Tuesday, November 6, 2012 signaled the death knell for the brand. 

    Not all brands have failed at such an inflection point however. Ford motors had lost its focus in the late 90s and early 2000s, building its commitment in brands such as Aston Martin, Volvo and Range Rover while quality of the namesake brand fell. In 2006, a key initiative for Ford was to return to the roots of the brand, remove the noise created across the company by divesting brands not aligned to the business vision, and refocus on the things that made the brand great. Ford has since regained popularity through a dedication to improved quality and relentless focus on customer needs.

    What lessons can the Republican Party take from these brand failures and successes? What should it do next?

    First and foremost, the party must recognize changing preferences and behaviors among the American voters – the brand’s effective consumers. Finding a relevant space in voters’ minds that is also true to the core philosophy of the brand will help it maintain authenticity. Like Ford, the Republican Party has created too much noise in its messages and lost its voice in efforts to attract more extreme (but highly-vocal) voting blocks.

    The challenge for the party will be to find out what elements of its brand it should retain and what must be repositioned or sacrificed altogether. This will require great courage as tradeoffs will be made to hone and clarify what the brand stands for; growing appeal may paradoxically require reducing the brands convictions. Conservative philosophy founded on the principles of individual liberty and responsibility as well as a limited, decentralized government would have impacts on issues from immigration and education to entitlement programs and foreign policy, all issues that were focal points in this year’s election. Whatever the GOP finds are the most powerful drivers of behavior for the new “center-right,” the brand must commit to its new position and communicate with a single voice, convincing voters that what they see is what they’ll get.

    As I referenced in my piece on Broken Brand Promises, in Presidential elections, the stakes couldn’t be higher when presidential election winners take 100% of the market share every four years. If the Republican Party can’t find a way to regain its voice in a way that is relevant to the new American voting public, it may soon find its way alongside Pan Am and Montgomery Ward in the graveyard of once great, but now deceased brands.

    Mike Leahy is Senior Consultant, Strategy, Interbrand New York.

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  • Posted by: Rebecca Hellerman on Tuesday, November 27 2012 05:35 PM | Comments (0)

     President Obama

    Election 2012 kicked off in Spring 2011 with formal announcements from nine GOP candidates running in the primaries and President Obama's formal reelection campaign declaration. Each candidate represented a personal brand and some of these brands were stronger than others.

    Jon Huntsman, a centrist GOP candidate, former governor of Utah and ambassador to China, used the slogan “Country First.” His anti-negativity platform and fiscally conservative messaging scored points, but his moderate stance on climate change and civil unions didn't resonate with the party. He suspended his campaign in January after coming in third in New Hampshire.

    Fiscal and social conservatives, dubbed "Tea Party favorites,” included Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain who each campaigned on platforms calling for fiscal responsibility, free markets and a constitutionally limited government. Their messaging also included positions on social issues such as reproductive choices and marriage rights.

    Bachmann, who founded the Tea Party caucus in the house, was an early favorite in this party within a party, garneringinterest as a relatable candidate. Her brand was weakened, though, by frequent gaffes. She suspended her campaign in January after a shortage of funds and a sixth place finish in the Iowa Caucus.

    Governor of Texas Rick Perry ran on a platform of “Make Us Great Again,” but his brand was weakened by a poor performance in a fall 2011 primary debate. Also voters felt his illegal immigrant tuition position in Texas was off message for the party. Perry suspended his campaign in January after poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

    Herman Cain built a brand with underdog and straight shooter appeal. Cain’s slogan “Lets Get Real,” song “I am America” and simple policy messaging, such as his 9-9-9 tax plan, helped his brand gain traction. An alleged affair and sexual harassment allegations derailed momentum. Cain suspended his campaign in December 2011 before the primary contests.

    Ron Paul, an established libertarian brand, also had appeal for Tea Party voters. Paul’s campaign slogan, “Restore America Now,” aligned with Tea Party values, however, his messaging on issues such as legalizing drugs, reducing aid to Israel and cuts to Defense weakened his brand appeal among the base. Yet Paul remained in the race longer than anyone other than Mitt Romney.

    Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House in the 1990s, gained after others fell from grace. Gingrich attempted to sway a broad audience with, “Unleash the American people; rebuild the America we love.” Yet, his brand could not overcome negative perceptions tied to house ethicssanctions, alleged lobbying activities and a colorful personal life. His verbose approach also lacked appeal and relatability.

    Rick Santorum surged from the bottom with therallying cry “The Courage to Fight for America." Santorum won over the Tea Party with conservative social and fiscal positions, beating Mitt Romney in the Iowa Caucus by 34 votes. He struggled, though, to appeal to moderates and women. In April, with depleted funds and a hospitalized daughter, Santorum suspended his campaign.

    Throughout the entirety of his campaign, MittRomney struggled with a perception problem around consistency and relatability. He was seen as the front-runner even before announcing his candidacy, but left his party dissatisfied for much of the election cycle. His slogan, “Believe in America,” did little to differentiate him and much of his messaging focused on attacking President Obama. While accusations his planswere vague persisted, ads with CEO testimonials touting his financial leadership added value to the Romney brand.

    After clinching the GOP nomination, Romney had the opportunity to bolster his brand with the selection of a strong runningmate. Romney chose to make his brand more appealing to the far right, whom he had yet to win over, by selecting Paul Ryan, whose fiscal policies align with Tea Party positions.

    The GOP celebrated the Romney-Ryan ticket at the Republican National Convention in August 2012. Shortly after the convention, Romney’s now-infamous “47%” comment leaked. Romney’s comments, calling almost half of Americans subsidy dependent victims, damaged efforts to build a relatable brand. Unanswered calls for more tax return information also diminished the sense of his brand’s authenticity.

    President Obama, whose re-election campaign had yet to take off in earnest, and VP Joe Biden, were equally celebrated at the Democratic National Convention. Speakers included former President Bill Clinton, who praised Obama’s record, challenging the gap between policy accomplishments and public perception of the first term. Theconvention success led to a bump in the polls for Obama.

    President Obama, in what many saw as a very tight race, built on his 2008 “Hope” slogan with a more actionable campaign promise: “Forward.” The president still had to overcome a perception gap and messaging from the Romney camp spotlighting the still lagging economy. However, improved financial news late in the campaign season helped boost the Obama brand’s authenticity.

    With consistent messaging and a steadfast strategy of speaking first about his wife and daughters and then on a tactical level about issues and plans in clear language, President Obama strengthened the relatable brand he had created for himself. He remained persistent in his stances on tax cuts and job creation.

    Obama’s disconnected demeanor in the first debate was inconsistent for a president known for his warm, everyman candor, and caused him to lose the moderate lead he had held against Romney. Romney’s “binders full of women” comment in the second debate helped reverse Obama’s downward trend. At the close of the third and final debate the two were polling head-to-head.

    The turning point may have occurred as late as the week before the election. When Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast, President Obama paused his campaign and headed to the hardest hit communities. Meanwhile, Romney lost relevance and understanding because of previous threats to cut FEMA funding.

    New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a favorite amongst the GOP who had spoken at the Republican convention, publicly praised Obama for his handling of the disaster, increasing the President’s relevance and understanding. By the weekend before the election, Obama had made up for his polling gap by almost all accounts.

    This campaign season was arguably about undecided voters and an electorate dissatisfied with the two major party brands. Following its election loss, the Republican Party in particular will need to realign its brand. President Obama has his work cut out for him in maintaining his brand’s authenticity and avoiding perception gaps in a way he did not in his first term.

    Rebecca Hellerman is an Associate Consultant, Strategy for Interbrand New York.

    For more in our Interbrand IQ political branding series, see Political Branding: Brand America 2012.

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  • Posted by: Mike Leahy on Tuesday, November 6 2012 06:00 PM | Comments (0)

    Breaking Brand Promises

    We all make promises. Brands are built on them. Some of the best brands deliberately layer promises to reach consumers at a more emotional level. The same can be said in politics, aggregating policy views up to something greater. FDR promised a “New Deal for the American People.” Reagan stated, “It’s morning again in America.” Most recently President Obama promised “Hope and Change.” All have made these bold emotion-driven promises to their consumers – the American voters.

    The number one rule in branding (and business for that matter) is don’t over promise and under deliver. So what happens to brands – and presidents – when customers believe they have not delivered on their promises?

    Coca-Cola (the long-running most valuable brand on Interbrand’s Best Global Brands report) has built an incredibly strong brand. In 1985, Coke was perceived to have broken the foundation of its promise when it changed its secret formula and launched New Coke. Consumer backlash from passionate Coke drinkers resulted in Coke’s pulling the product out of market after only a few months. “We did not understand the deep emotions of so many of our customers for Coca-Cola,” said then company President Donald R. Keough.

    Similarly, Toyota built a tremendous brand around its promise of quality, durability, and reliability, becoming the second largest automaker in the US in 2009. When its quality promise came into question because of gas pedal malfunctions, the brand – and sales – took a significant blow losing nearly 2 full points in market share. However, both of these brands have recovered from these events and are now stronger than ever.

    Presidents have faced similar challenges with delivering on their promises. George H.W. Bush’s now infamous “Read my lips, no new taxes” promise was broken two years into his presidency and became a focal point for Bill Clinton’s winning campaign strategy, unseating the incumbent. Lyndon Johnson failed to deliver on his promises to end the Vietnam War, creating a credibility gap so large he chose not to seek reelection in 1968.

    How can Coca-Cola and Toyota break core elements of their promises and bounce back when presidents seem to struggle? One advantage brands have over presidents is the time to establish credibility in consumers’ minds. Coke and Toyota spent decades building consumer faith and trust in their brands. Missteps can be absorbed without completely breaking the brand's relationship with consumers.

    Presidents have a far more limited ability to establish confidence in their brands, making any breach of trust seem devastating. First-term presidents have only had minimal time to prove themselves to voters before the reelection cycle begins and from day one each is scrutinized. Consumers want campaign promises delivered quickly and decisively. Any perceived breaches of confidence should be addressed proactively and transparently.

    This election season, despite overseeing the passing of significant legislation in his first two years in office, President Obama struggled to rally voters on the Hope and Change promise that led him to the White House in 2008. It may be that Hope and Change are too broad or abstract. Some Americans say they feel that they have not seen what they felt they were promised. From a branding perspective, if your promise is not clearly articulated to consumers and linked to tangible expectations, a negative perception gap can result, which can be damaging to brands.

    As Tom Zara and Pete Cendella note in their piece Citizens All: The New Rules of Corporate Citizenship on performance gaps, "There’s a potential sinkhole in the market, waiting to suck value away from brands. It’s the gap that can open up between a company’s actual corporate citizenship performance on the one hand, and the public perception of that citizenship, on the other." While they wrote on corporate citizenship, this can apply to any performance and perception gap. "A negative gap occurs when a brand fails to get credit in perception for its performance. These brands are not seeing the full return on their Corporate Citizenship investment. That’s why it’s critical that companies find ways to tell the story of who they are, why they choose to engage as they do, and how they are having an impact in doing so."

    This perception gap for a president brand creates an interesting challenge in brand strategy. If policies need to be flexible to meet the needs of a dynamic global economy, can politicians ever build their brands at the same level as “Happiness” (Coca-Cola’s brand promise) without setting themselves up for failure? Do they need to only build their brands around policy positions to give voters something tangible to measure against?

    A word of caution to brand Romney should he be elected today. As a candidate he has made numerous tangible promises to voters including labeling China a currency manipulator, repealing Obamacare and establishing the conditions to create 12 million new jobs. If elected, his ability to deliver on these promises will greatly dictate his brand perception and his ability to build his credibility and trust on the national stage.

    In Presidential elections, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Voters make this “purchase” once every four years, and the winner takes 100% of the market share. As voters go to the polls today, let’s hope they have done their homework before they buy and know what promises they can (and cannot) believe in for the next four years.

    For more in our Interbrand IQ political branding series, see Political Branding: Brand America 2012

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  • Posted by: Amy Edel-Vaughn on Monday, November 5 2012 05:34 PM | Comments (0)


    The presidential candidates and their campaigns have been working throughout the summer, conventions and debates to build strong brands with messaging focusing on policy, capability and character. As only days remain, and the race between brand Obama and brand Romney are neck and neck, much of Election 2012 may come down to the branding in the candidates’ political ads.

    While many consumers may be feeling campaign exhaustion with the onslaught of advertisements on the air in the last stretch of the campaign, particularly in swing states such as Ohio, ads can be a key component for candidates to build on the messaging from stump speeches, convention speakers and debate performances. For example, both candidates leveraged the brand equity of their wives through Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Romney’s speeches, and this can be seen in the candidates’ ads as well.

    The Romney campaign’s political ads work to establish Romney’s proof points with testimonials from others who have worked with him, leveraging the brand equity of executives from such national brands as Staples, Sports Authority and Steel Dynamics. The overall narrative of these ads portrays brand Romney as “rock solid” and a “proven business leader” who is “devoted” to family, work and his values.

    The Clear Path opens with Romney seeking to discredit the first term of the incumbent and differentiate himself, criticizing Obama and portraying him as failing to support small business. The ad contrasts this perception with Romney’s record of balancing a state budget while governor of Massachusetts and his tenure as a business leader. Romney adds an interesting element, playing on what did work for Obama in 2008, the idea of “Hope,” working to position Romney as “the hope of the Earth.”

    In Uniquely Qualified the Romney campaign taps into the brand strength of executives who construct a picture of Romney as capable and possessing the character to be CEO of brand America. Their testimonials portray Romney as a leader who “understands,” “cares” and who they “trust inherently to run this country.”

    These two ads are both on brand for the Romney narrative and highlight Romney’s position as a seasoned CEO with strong business success. The Message to the WalMart Community is less clearly on brand.

    While the WalMart ad leverages the equity of brand Ann Romney established at the Republican National Convention, as the overall messaging throughout the ad is muddied. When Romney’s son comments if the kids wanted money they went to their mother because their father “was too cheap” and points out Romney’s problem solving skills in the example of installing the incorrect lightbulb in the kitchen and then masking the problem with tape and foil rather than solving the problem, the messaging of the campaign is weakened.

    The Staples executive who spoke on brand in Uniquely Qualified returns in the Message to the WalMart Community, commenting “Why would anybody want to save on envelopes and file folders? Mitt is a cheap son of a gun. And if he can save $0.50 on paper clips, he’d drive a mile to do it. Wicked grin.” This moves the messaging from building a brand image of a rock solid, caring leader into what might be a negative image of a businessman nickeling and diming while the public struggles, although it may appeal to the fiscal conservatives of the GOP base, invigorating core supporters.

    The Obama campaign’s ads seek to position the president as a leader with solid accomplishments during difficult times. The messaging seeks to eliminate the perception gap that the Romney campaign has leveraged between the Obama record and the lack of strong campaign messaging touting accomplishments in the early stages of the campaign. Building on President Bill Clinton’s “Secretary of Explaining Stuff” role at the Democratic National Convention, Obama’s ads work to position Obama as guiding the nation “Forward.”

    Determination builds on the Clinton convention narrative of an economy that was a monumental mess that needed rebuilding and is a work in progress, heading in the right direction under Obama’s stewardship. This ad is clearly on brand for the Obama campaign, focusing on Obama as a CEO of brand America with victories along the way and the experience to lead the nation.

    Rebuilding struggles to find its place in the overall brand messaging. The ad highlights a conflict within the Obama narrative. To appeal to the base, or brand Democratic Party, the message is we brought soldiers home. This could be an issue for the wider consumer or voter pool in a general election. The Romney campaign has worked to portray the Obama administration as having mishandled the crisis in the Middle East, and while some of this messaging was mitigated during the third presidential debate on foreign policy by the president, this aspect of the Obama ad may not sit well with voters concerned about bolstering our military presence in the region.

    The ad fails to connect bringing troops home with the idea that this is possible because of strong leadership as Commander in Chief, bringing down bin Laden and through strong foreign policy. The ad misses an opportunity to further spotlight policy and capability, although it does speak to the president’s character, committing himself to the values expressed during his 2008 campaign, promising to bring the troops home.

    The Obama campaign’s Message to the WalMart Community, however, leverages the First Lady’s appeal and experience, delivering the brand narrative clearly. Obama has “been there” she notes. When Mrs. Obama says, “I know you’re working hard” and assures the voter consumer) that her husband is working hard for us, she builds on and reinforces the campaign theme of rebuilding and “Forward.”

    In speaking of the opportunities that were available, enabling her success and her husband’s, she differentiates the success theme within brand Obama’s messaging. Romney used “hope” to suggest a broken brand promise from Obama and that he would deliver. Here Mrs. Obama uses “success,” a core piece of the Romney brand narrative of a successful businessman, to suggest that she and her husband are successful because of opportunities that opened doors and brand Obama’s commitment to strategic policies that will grow opportunities for all. She paints a picture of democratizing success.

    This ad is solidly on brand and seeks to differentiate the Obama campaign from perceptions that Romney’s campaign hasn’t shared enough details with Mrs. Obama’s invitation to read the Obama plan and make an informed choice. President Obama also invited people to read details of his future plans at the end of Determination, building cohesive messaging.

    Both brand Romney and brand Obama play to their strengths in their ads, but suffer from complicated narratives that highlight challenges for both campaigns in the last days before the election. Both focus on caring about people, working to humanize their brands and position their candidates as the most qualified CEO of Brand America.

    For more in our Interbrand IQ political branding series, see Political Branding: Brand America 2012

    Amy Edel-Vaughn is Interbrand’s Community Manager and Editor of Political Branding: Brand America 2012.

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