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Steffen Schmidt 11:09 p.m. CST February 23, 2015 Des Moines Register
Consumers like to know their product.
If it’s Coke, they want Coke not “New Coke.”
The latest news is that former Sen. Hillary Clinton has hired a public relations firm to help her define herself. That seems to be the main reason she hasn’t declared her 2016 candidacy for president — she’s still trying to figure out who she is.
Some are shocked at this. Actually, it’s not such an odd thing in politics.
Think of the candidates running for president in 2016 as a product. After all, they are offering their signature qualities and asking consumers of political leadership and ideology to buy their product and not the “other” products available on the market. I’m assuming there will be at least two or three alternatives to Hillary Clinton on the Democratic Party side. We know Republicans will have a bonanza of alternatives.
Selling the product requires each candidate to first of all “brand” herself or himself. The marketing field explains that, “Your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from that of your competitors. Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and whom people perceive you to be.” This is precisely what political candidates must do. Especially the part about “whom you want people to perceive you to be.”
Second, candidates then need to develop “brand loyalty.” That means assuring that people will come back to the same candidate, i.e. the same brand.
Companies and candidates who successfully cultivate loyal customers also develop brand ambassadors. These are consumers who will buy into a certain brand and then talk positively about it among their friends. “This is free word-of-mouth marketing for the company and is often very effective,” according to Entrepreneur.com. This is clearly also the optimal outcome for political candidates. We call it “going viral,” which can be either digital or simply analog by word of mouth.
According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, MIT Sloan School marketing professor Renée Richardson Gosline has noted that to inspire loyalty you need to offer a unique feeling not just a vague idea. A product, i.e. a candidate, must fit a specific brand identity and send a signal of what that brand is and “… carry the same brand identity signal across the entire product.” The brand label must not “dilute its identity.” That means candidates need to drill down on their identity, reinforce it, refine it but not swerve too far away from the brand the consumers know.
My best example of this is former Vice President Al Gore. When he ran for president in 2000, one of the observation by the media, pundits and even many voters was that he “does a perfect imitation of a tree.” In other words he was stiff and conventional.
I followed that race for the White House very closely and it soon became evident that someone was messing with Al Gore, trying to transform him. The first thing we noticed was that he suddenly started wearing a Palm Pilot on his belt.
Palm Pilot was a digital organizer launched in 1992 with which you could manage your calendar and other information. Remember that Gore was said to have “invented the Internet,” which he didn’t actually do. As a matter of fact, I remember stories reporting that President Bill Clinton and Gore had to be taught how to use a computer. So, Gore’s handlers decided to make him “cool” and “techie” by slapping a Palm on his waist.
Then, a few months later at a big rally in the Memorial Union at Iowa State University, I had a front-row seat. Gore emerged on stage and I immediately noticed that he was wearing “Earth tones.” That must have been part of his evolution to an environmentalist which, of course, culminated in the publishing of his book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the Nobel Prize shared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But, I also noticed that he was wearing super-tight pants, which startlingly accentuated his buttocks. That was unfamiliar and out of character.
When these changes became clear to the media, and even to voters, the reaction was that people liked the “old Gore” much better even if he was boring like a tree.
In other words, they liked the existing brand, the “Old Coke” better than the “rebranded” Gore, i.e. the “New Coke.”
I’ll be watching the 2016 contenders closely to see how they brand themselves. Especially Hillary Clinton.