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Opinion: Obama, Romney would benefit from some business-branding basics

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For a lifelong brander and longtime resident of the DC area, what could be more exciting than evaluating the biggest brands of the area’s biggest product – politics – during a presidential election?

I collaborated in this exploration with Pacifica Graduate Institute president and best-selling author Carol Pearson to glean deeper insight on the archetypal brands of the candidates. Together, we evaluated the brand identities and brand management of President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Our primary criterion for evaluation was how well each candidate followed the number one rule of great branding: Choose an authentic identity — defined by your purpose, your personality and your values — and stick to it. In other words, align your words and your actions to convey your central branding theme as a way to build connection, trust and relationship with your audiences around what’s really important to you.

For both presidential hopefuls, what we found was the ineffective use of a powerful tool that may very well explain why neither candidate has been able to rally the passion and excitement of the American people.

Obama’s split brand identity

In 2008, Obama the candidate built a strong brand. Now, Obama the president has a strong brand. The problem is that they are not the same brand.

As a candidate, Obama was a visionary. He ran a very effective campaign by sharing his dreams and visions for extending the American dream to include all people in all ways. His messages about hope and building a better America based on the use of collaboration and reaching across party lines resonated with the American people, created excitement, and motivated them to come to the polls to cast their ballots in his favor. So far, so good.

Once in office, however, the environment changed. Under fierce attack by opponents determined to render him impotent, strong resistance to his proposals and repeated rejection of his compromise attempts, Obama steered off course – he shifted his brand.

He left behind his visionary tone and emerged as a leader of intelligent reasoning, logical decision-making and a dispassionate approach to managing the complex problems he and the country were facing.

Don’t get me wrong – employing sage-like intelligence at a time of economic crisis is not necessarily a bad move. But in doing so, he abandoned his primary means of galvanizing public support for his passionate vision for change and making the country a better place. In shifting brands from a visionary to a sage, Obama left his supporters flat and the broader public questioning whether he was fulfilling his hopeful promise to the country.

How could he employ a more intelligent reasoning ability and save his engaging visionary brand at the same time? By sticking to his theme of fulfilling a passionate vision for a better America even as he applied a more sage-like approach to the decisions required to accomplish that goal. For example, in his first few years in office, he could have done a better job of positioning healthcare and banking reform (both requiring cunning and expertise) as pragmatic steps toward a achieving his more comprehensive vision for a better America.

Still, it’s not too late for the president to reclaim his visionary brand. If he can do so now, he might succeed not only in getting elected, but also in retaining that support in his second term.

Romney’s anti-brand

Whereas Obama has effectively defined and executed two brand personalities, Romney has yet to get one off the ground. His campaign, by design, defies the primary rule of branding. His strategy of delivering the message that each audience wants to hear has succeeded in gaining him favor with sub-sets of the electorate; however, it has failed to define a focused brand, personality or single set of values behind which the American people can rally.

Hoping to gain Tea Party support, Romney has been pressured into adopting strong positions on abortion and contraception that are largely unpopular with the majority of Americans. To secure the support of pro-business economic conservatives, he promised to overhaul the welfare society and drastically reduce the size of government – plans solidified by his recent choice of a running mate.

However, because the “Ryan budget” would radically alter and reduce funding for Medicare, it threatens to undermine traditional Republican support among older voters. Romney also has been put in the position of running against his own concerned leader performance and values from his days as governor of Massachusetts, making it difficult for him to project a clear sense of who he is and what he believes.

We believe his best chance to gain the support of the majority of voters is to run as the anti-Obama candidate – the only real alternative for those who don’t want the president to remain in office.

This is a strategy we would never recommend for a client trying to create a long-term sustainable brand. To some extent, presidents in a democracy do need to bend to the will of the people and their parties, but they also need to come across as having a solid character and identity.

However, what’s most interesting about Romney’s strategy is that, in the short-term world of presidential campaigns, it just might work. After all, large numbers of small groups can collectively determine the outcome of an election.

If he does win, the question will turn to whether Romney, once in office, will step up into a strong personal brand as a leader. Or, alternatively, will the power be with Congress and other Republican leaders who, up to now, have appeared to set his campaign agenda and fuel his march to the nomination?

Susan Waldman is co-founder and vice president of strategic services for ZilYen, a marketing firm based in Washington. Carol Pearson is president of Pacifica Graduate Institute , author of The Hero Within, and coauthor of The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes.

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