that the dust has settled some after this year’s U.S. Presidential election, a
critical imperative for brand marketers stands out. For all the hoopla of late
about data, digital, diversity and nudges, none of these much-ballyhooed
marketing innovations matter until old-timey fundamentals have been taken care
Obama’s successful reelection campaign is a reminder that whatever you’re
selling or how, it starts with the most basic thing of all – a great brand positioning.
stories hot off the presses about Obama’s success have focused on the nifty new
stuff. The data
and digital angle
has emphasized the campaign’s high-tech use
Data and the predictive models developed to classify and prioritize voters
for fund raising, ad targeting and get-out-the-vote efforts. The diversity
angle has focused on Obama’s disproportionate
margins among the nation’s fastest growing demographic groups, particularly
(and the challenges
going forward for the Republican party). The nudges
angle has highlighted the campaign’s utilization of insights from
behavioral economists and social psychologists about the best ways to persuade
and motivate people. But these stories, while true, overlook the most important
element of Obama’s campaign.
a New York Times op-ed the day after
the election, Obama’s lead pollster, Joel Benenson, took
exception to these narrowly focused accounts of the campaign’s success. As he put it, “the president’s victory was
a triumph of vision, not of demographics.” Or to put it in brand marketing
terms, a great brand positioning.
isn’t arguing that demographics – or data or digital or nudges – didn’t matter,
just that it mattered only because there was something compelling for these key
demographic groups to vote for. Absent
something meaningful to say to voters, there would have been no point in building
the database, developing the models and honing the approach.
Benenson put it, the president “won because he articulated a set of values that
define an America that the majority of us wish to live in.” Brand marketers
call this a big idea, which is to say, a clear and compelling brand positioning.
course, many pundits would take issue with Benenson (though the bulk of Benenson’s
piece summarized research supporting his assertion). But no one would argue
with the broader point he’s making – positioning has to be taken care of first.
not just any positioning. It must be motivating, credible and unique, the three
things essential to a great positioning. Brands run into trouble when their
positioning could be plausibly claimed by a competitor, or when they move too
far from the core of their appeal to consumers, or when they differentiate on
dimensions unclaimed by other brands but un-motivating.
proof of a great positioning is in the pudding, so to speak. It is unifying and
it is fireproof – both of which were enjoyed by the Obama campaign. For
example, Obama’s middle-class vision afforded him a platform for attacking Mitt Romney without alienating voters as being capricious, vindictive or spiteful. Against
the background of Obama’s positioning, it all fit together.
lot has been written about a crucial
moment in the Obama campaign when the team decided to frontload its
advertising spending rather than hold it in reserve for the final sprint to
election day. The idea was to define Romney as anti-middle class at a time,
immediately after the primaries, when his coffers were temporarily depleted and
his image still colored by the necessity to veer right to protect his flank from
early to cast your opponent in a negative light is a tried-and-true tactic, but
circumstances made it chancier for Obama. His record was shadowed by high unemployment
and low approval, something no incumbent had been able to overcome before, and once
the general election kicked off, the Romney campaign was going to be flush with
money again, supplemented by well-financed Super PACs. But Obama’s positioning
overcame these deficits by fitting Romney into the campaign’s middle-class
narrative. It wasn’t about spending early to get the jump on insults; it was
about telling a coherent story during a lull in the chatter in order to make
Romney part of Obama’s story rather than a story unto himself. Like a dominant brand, Obama, in effect,
defined the category, thus making it nearly impossible for Romney to recast the
context of choice in terms more to his liking. With his positioning, Obama gave
voters a cogent, straightforward way to make sense of everything else.
was especially true when the 47
percent video broke. Romney immediately tried to distance himself from it
but had difficulty doing so because his comments fit the character Obama had
made him out to be in his middle-class narrative. Admittedly, this incident was
unplanned, but serendipity is a part of every election, as well as every
marketplace situation for brands. A good positioning is robust with respect to
the unexpected. What Romney lacked was a positioning that could rescue his
image by dialing down the significance of those remarks in defining his image.
large part of the Republican attack on Obama centered on the economy, jobs in
particular. But this left Romney vulnerable to events beyond his control. It
was a bet that the economy would show no positive movement for well over a
year, something unlikely even with the weakness at hand and something that a
sitting President is actively working to reverse anyway. Unsurprisingly, this
gamble failed when, late in the campaign, the unemployment rate dropped below 8
by the time the unemployment rate improved, the jobs issue had already devolved
into a broader referendum on Obama – the riskiest, emptiest sort of negative
marketing of all. Basically, this is no positioning. It is standing against
rather than standing for. You can ask if
you’re better off than four years ago as a contrast to a new way forward, but
it’s a wooly contrast versus nothing. Even when voting against something,
people want to vote for an alternative, just as people prefer brands that deliver
something not merely avoid something.
a last gambit, with a little over a week to go, the Romney campaign dialed up
the referendum strategy with an ad in Ohio claiming the President had bailed
out Chrysler only for the company to relocate U.S. Jeep jobs to China. This set
off a fact-checking
with a vehement
from Chrysler, that ultimately turned into a backpedaling
distraction that kept Romney from single-mindedly buttressing a positive
message going into election day.
worse for Romney, the Jeep ad rejuvenated Obama’s positioning. It raised the jobs issue in a way that
brought back to mind Obama’s middle-class narrative about how he and Romney
compared on outsourcing, saving auto industry jobs and economic priorities. Serendipitous
timing made this an extremely valuable bonus for Obama. Hurricane Sandy was
swirling ashore at this very moment, making the election seem small and pushing
Romney off the front page. But the Jeep ad kept key Obama issues from
disappearing completely from the news.
summing up the ten
lessons about politics he learned from managing Obama’s campaign, Jim
Messina echoed Benenson about the utter importance of a great positioning. As
Messina put it, “You can build a whole suite of analytics… but it all comes
back to the campaign, it all comes back to having a message that matters.”
less is true for brands. Brand marketing is changing rapidly, with innovations
galore on the horizon. Yet, one fundamental, old-timey thing matters no less
than ever – a great brand positioning.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: J. Walker Smith, Executive Chairman, The Futures Company
Sponsored By: The Brand Positioning Workshop
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