Friday, September 26, 2008

What We Can Learn about Media and Branding from this Week's Presidential Race

I watched this unfold on CNN with great interest. The political campaigns are an incredible example of marketing in the age of the Internet and how you can really screw up when things move so quickly. There is also enormous opportunity if you are smart and stick with your messages and don't deviate from your brand franchise.

Obama stumbled - as the stock market was tanking 500 points last week his campaign was sending out messages about Sara Palin's lies regarding the Bridge to Nowhere and other things. But that was over. The timing could not have been worse. He seemed like an angry, small man playing he said, she said. And out of touch with the world.

This week Obama got back on message and bounced back with a four point plan that essentially said Wall Street leaders, not the American taxpayer, should pay for the bailout. That's Obama's I'm on your side approach and it helped rejuvenate him in the polls. That's his brand.

On Wednesday - when John McCain tried to outmaneuver Barack Obama in the Wall Street mess - we saw what happens when one candidate tries to co-opt messages that another already owns.

What happened? On Wednesday morning Obama reached out to McCain and suggested they put partisan politics aside and issue a joint statement of what they thought needed to be accomplished in a the financial bailout. Turns out they weren't very far apart in what they wanted anyway.

The McCain people jerked Obama's people around until 2:30 in the afternoon when he called Obama back and agreed to do it. Less than half an hour later McCain was on national television (we watched him on CNN) making a statement about how he was suspending his campaign and heading back to Washington to help with the bail-out. He sounded uncomfortable and hurried, didn't actually leave for Washington until doing network interviews, and didn't bother to acknowledge reporters by taking questions. Instead of looking presidential he just looked desperate and old.

Obama was smarter. While the CNN hacks sat around with nothing to say for over an hour other than we are waiting for Obama's statement, he devised a strategy that completely reinforced his brand and messages.

Obama came on CNN and talked about how a president needs to do more than one thing at a time, and that although he was in constant contact with DC, he wouldn't cancel the debate (the American people should hear what we have to say, we're running out of time). He gave a blow by blow of his morning and afternoon conversing with the McCain team and made it clear that he'd made the first move, without openly accusing him of grandstanding. Obama looked thoughtful, deliberate and presidential. And the smartest part, he took media questions - which helped point out that McCain and his running mate do not.

The CNN people came back on and even they said that McCain's decision seemed like cheap political maneuvering. And they kept saying it. That on top of Sara Palin's photo opp with a world leader where even the Fox news correspondent got miffed because she was allowed in the room for all of 29 seconds and couldn't talk to her, was a bad week for the Republicans. McCain the maverick, became McCain the scared guy who stalled negotiations. And that's not very enticing to anyone, let alone those independents who are not sure what to do.

So what can marketers learn from this week in presidential politics?

Even in the age of "real time" all decisions need to be well thought out and possible outcomes evaluated. You cannot pretend to be a maverick if his decisions appear impulsive, careless and political - there will be a backlash.

Pre-set emails, even if on current message, need to be monitored up to the minute, in case something in the world or your business changes. Otherwise you look like idiots.

Know your brand and what your customers believe about you. Stay true to it. McCain may have once been a maverick but right now maverick doesn't work - it's Obama's message and he does it better. McCain should find out what his brand really does mean to people - perhaps war hero, keep us safe and making smart choices. He needs to stand for something. Taking your competitors messages doesn't work for long - you need your own unique positioning. And once you've got it, make people believe you mean it.

When you stick with your brand image, know it and nurture it, you can win. Obama's message of Change may be wearing thin with voters, but what resonates is he cares about them, he knows what they're going through. And when he sticks with that he wins.

Marketers should know their brand and only change it if and when they know in their gut and backed up by research that the time is right. They may reinforce, readjust, etc. - but people don't respond well when they dramatically deviate. They feel cheated and angry. And the last thing you want is pissed off customers and prospects.

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