Strong Emotions Help Build Powerful Brands, in the Consumer and Political Worlds Alike

During this long 2008 season of political campaigning, it may be useful to us as marketers of products to examine the marketing of presidential candidates and to acknowledge the role emotion plays in effective brand-positioning to voters—and consumers—alike.

Many brand managers tend to emphasize the rational reasons why his or her product should be accepted by the target audience. Perhaps the brand’s attributes and characteristic features suggest excellence; could be it offers a better price; or maybe its sales promotions seem irresistible.

Unfortunately, by focusing on the essence of what the product is and does, the marketer may fail to nurture the budding emotional relationship between the customer and the brand. One sneaker may be as sturdily built and as objectively stylish as any Nike shoe; but Nike designs footwear that resonates deeply on an emotional level with consumers, with thoughts of Michael Jordan and game-winning jump shots, and with pleasure taken in dressing for a lifestyle defined by physical activity.

Or, as Editor Alan M. Webber wrote recently in the business magazine Fast Company, “I doubt most people who own a computer know what Intel processors do [or] why they are superior to their competition. All they know is that they want to own a computer with ‘Intel Inside.’”

Now that’s an emotional decision. We live in an emotional world and emotions tend to power most of our choices.

Similarly, the remarkable candidacy of Barack Obama—particularly as it was advanced during the primaries—was not designed to promote rational consideration of his views on specific topics, like taxes or the Iraq war. Like any promising product, the Obama candidacy filled a need for genuine innovation, in this case among Democrats who long felt abandoned in the political wilderness of an eight-year Republican administration. And the evolving brand that Mr. Obama represents is not based on performance, either. His success so far—specifically, his ability to excite potential voters even outside his own party and to raise prodigious amounts of money for his campaign through genuine grass-roots effort— is contingent upon an emotional connection, a connection that transcends who and what he is: namely, a politician.

Just as Nike transcends what it is fundamentally—a sneaker—the Obama brand is strategically aimed at evoking aspirational feelings in the electorate: Desire for unity, less divisiveness and a new tone in political discourse, something beyond (and above) what he has termed “the politics of the past.” His clamoring for “change” is hardly unique for a politician; however, his casting it in the phrase “change you can believe in” raises a politician’s bromide to a new level of relevancy for many Americans eager for something other than the status quo.

As Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide put it, also in Fast Company,” “Barack Obama is three things you want in a brand: New, different and attractive. That’s as good as it gets. 

Of course, many positionings simply don’t endure forever, no matter how right they feel at the outset. Voters’ preferences—like consumers’—evolve over time as circumstances change. Hillary Clinton, the original Democratic frontrunner, whom Mr. Obama narrowly defeated for his party’s nomination, promoted her more tangible experience and her down-to-earth familiarity with how Washington worked as features voters would benefit from. When her candidacy began to sputter as Mr. Obama’s star rose and he began accumulating primary victories, she felt the need to retool her “experience” positioning. So in light of deteriorating economic conditions, she began to emphasize her ability to provide economically targeted solutions. In fact, Mrs. Clinton seemed repeatedly to revise her positioning as new issues arose. The result, as we know now, is that the Clinton campaign came up short, while Obama continues scoring—even today in the full heat of the 2008 campaign main event—with his emotional exhortations of “change” and “hope” and “yes, we can.”

Successful product brands that begin losing share may indeed require repositioning. SUV manufacturers are losing their dominance of the US car market as the rising cost of gasoline renders their products too expensive for many consumers to operate. Hence, some manufacturers are repositioning themselves as more “green.” Of course, any change of positioning in order to attract new customers—or new voters— carries a risk: You may alienate your previous customers who may not care for the change, who felt more comfortable with the tried-and-true. Will life-long General Motors’ fans accept the company’s new direction toward hybrids and electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles? Time will tell to see if GM can make a believable case for overtly environmentally friendly cars that excites its traditional customers.

As for Mr. Obama, after he denied Mrs. Clinton the nomination, many people thought he should put the former First Lady on his ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, thus enabling him to win over Clinton supporters, especially in the troublesome “swing states.”

Of course, that idea has now been left in the drawer. After all, how would such a move have sat with the original Obama die-hard target audience, who equated Mrs. Clinton’s “experience” with the old-fashioned rather than the novel and transcendent politics espoused by Mr. Obama? To what extent would the addition of Mrs. Clinton to the ticket have dampened the emotional benefit Mr. Obama’s supporters originally derived from his brand positioning as the agent of change? Mr. Obama has made and--stuck with—a strategic decision to advance himself as a new kind of candidate. Sometimes the best positioning move is the one you don’t make.


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