Brand Strategy: Politics And Positioning

Walker SmithNovember 27, 20125606 min

Now 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 of first.

President 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.

The 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 of BigData 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 Hispanics (and the challenges this presents 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.

In 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.

Benenson 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.

As 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.

Of 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.

But 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.

The 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.

Alot 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 primary challengers.

Spending 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.

This 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.

A 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 percent.

But 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.

As 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 frenzy, with a vehement denial from Chrysler, that ultimately turned into a backpedaling distraction that kept Romney from single-mindedly buttressing a positive message going into election day.

But 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.

In 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.”

No 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.

The Blake Project Can Help: The Brand Positioning Workshop

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