LJ business reviewer Steve Turner, below, is partner with Turner DeVaughn Network, a marketing consulting firm based in San Francisco. (Here’s his latest LJ review, with the next one coming soon.)
Recently, I checked in with Steve to find out his thoughts, from a marketing perspective, about our current presidential race. Here’s a bit of our conversation:
MH: We hear the use of the word "branding" in this election cycle as never before. So from a branding perspective, where are we? What do you make of Barack Obama’s evident shift to the center since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee?
ST: The most successful products appeal to a core group of consumers who are wildly loyal to them and willing to promote them to friends and family. Senator Obama has built his reputation almost exclusively on his rhetorical skill: it’s what he says that impacts whether he has "believability." He made his debut as a "uniter" (Democratic Convention keynote, 2004), then as a "liberal" (2008 nomination process), and now he appears to be headed toward the "center" for the general election. Yes, as a media phenomenon he has been wildly successful in a short time, but his long term legacy will rest on how his "believability" endures.
MH: What about Sen. McCain’s own branding? His positions are now very different than they were when he ran in 2000. Can he succeed at rebranding himself and still retain "authenticity"?
ST: Most presidential candidates take a decade or two to build national awareness through the stances that they take. The idea with McCain was that he had that long experience. But he’s in the middle of an awkward transition where his own personal brand and what he now thinks voters will elect appear to be at odds. Effective politicians succeed at extending their brand in a believable way. We’ll see how that works for both of these candidates. McCain was burnishing his national security credentials when the economy and energy emerged as most important to voters, so an effective message would be for him to extend his "security hawk" brand to the related issues of energy and the economy and explain how they are connected. If he doesn’t he won’t get much traction. Effective politicians extend their brand to win over swing voters.
MH: So both candidates are moving into the general election by taking their bases for granted and extending their brand to win?
ST: It’s not just a branding discipline, it’s innovative use of the media. A brand is a one-way promise, but politicians turn the one-way message into a two-way political dialog by using the media. The media can then end up giving politicians the permission to shift their positions as the dialog evolves.
MH: For general readers, what books would you recommend on this topic of branding and politics?
ST: Media and the Restyling of Politics: Consumerism, Celebrity and Cynicism (2003), ed. by John Corner & Dick Pels (Sage) is a collection of essays that connect politics with celebrity culture, that short, simple messages by a candidate who shows well on TV has really been the pardigm since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (2007), by Matt Bai (Penguin) lays out the blogosphere phenomenon, part of a movement to use both logic and emotion to get the word out fast, without relying on traditional mass media. Bai shows who is financing this shift. On the other hand, talk radio has become a precise instrument to appeal to people who want to be persuaded and entertained. Mark A. Smith’s The Right Talk: How Conservatives Transformed the Great Society into the Economic Society (Princeton Univ., 2007) provides a clear look at how this happened.
MH: As for me, I’m looking forward to the end of this campaign — whether an ad campaign or a political campaign. I still trust that, fundamentally, it doesn’t amount to the same thing!