Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the creator of the “3 a.m. phone call” advertisement from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 campaign. Although Roy Spence had been among those publicly credited with the ad, it was in fact created by Mark Penn and Mandy Grunwald. This version has been corrected.
Is Hillary Rodham Clinton a McDonald’s Big Mac or a Chipotle burrito bowl? A can of Bud or a bottle of Blue Moon? JCPenney or J. Crew?
As she readies her second presidential campaign, Clinton has recruited consumer marketing specialists onto her team of trusted political advisers. Their job is to help imagine Hillary 5.0 — the rebranding of a first lady turned senator turned failed presidential candidate turned secretary of state turned likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.
Clinton and her image-makers are sketching ways to refresh the well-established brand for tomorrow’s marketplace. In their mission to present voters with a winning picture of the likely candidate, no detail is too big or too small — from her economic opportunity agenda to the design of the “H” in her future campaign logo.
“It’s exactly the same as selling an iPhone or a soft drink or a cereal,” said Peter Sealey, a longtime corporate marketing strategist. “She needs to use everything a brand has: a dominant color, a logo, a symbol. . . . The symbol of a Mercedes is a three-pointed star. The symbol of Coca-Cola is the contour bottle. The symbol of McDonald’s is the golden arches. What is Clinton’s symbol?”
Clinton’s challenge is unique. Unlike potential Republican challengers of relatively middling fame who are introducing themselves to a national audience for the first time, Clinton is almost universally recognized. Love her or loathe her, potential voters know who she is after more than two decades in public life.
Or they think they know.
As Clinton and her advisers conceptualize her 2016 image, her own history shows the potential for peril.
In politics, authenticity can be a powerful trait, and it is one that sometimes has escaped Clinton. In her 2008 presidential campaign, despite some raw displays of emotion, she often came across as overly programmed.
In 2016, a challenge for Clinton will be adapting to the political moment with a fresh image while remaining true to her settled identity. “Look at Budweiser,” said a former campaign adviser to President Obama, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “That’s what Hillary Clinton is. She’s not a microbrew. She’s one of the biggest, most powerful brands ever in the country, and recognizing that is important.”
Ahead of her campaign launch, Clinton has tapped some of the Democratic Party’s star strategists as well as two of corporate America’s branding wizards: Wendy Clark, who specializes in marketing age-old brands such as Coca-Cola to younger and more diverse customers; and Roy Spence, a decades-long Clinton friend who dreamed up the “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering slogan as well as flashy ad campaigns for Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart.
Clark took an unpaid leave in January from Coca-Cola, where she is president of brands and strategic marketing for carbonated beverages in North America, to help Clinton in what Clark called “a passion project.” Spence is co-founder and chairman of GSD&M, an Austin-based corporate ad firm, and has experience in politics, including with Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
Clinton’s words suggest that her 2016 campaign will stress economic fairness — the level playing field for the middle class implied by her Twitter message last month praising Obama’s State of the Union address. “Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class. #FairShot #FairShare,” Clinton wrote.
But the plans for Clinton’s rebranding are not yet clear, nor are the influences of the Madison Avenue sensibility Clark and Spence bring to her operation.
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill declined to comment on the branding strategy or the specific work of Clark and Spence.
People familiar with Clinton’s preparations said Clark and Spence are focused on developing imaginative ways to “let Hillary be Hillary,” as one person said, and help her make emotional connections with voters.
“I just want America to know the Hillary Clinton I know,” said Jerry Crawford, a friend and the Iowa chairman of Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “I want as many people as possible to get to know the woman I’ve seen behind closed doors. She’s bright, disciplined, quick to throw her head back and laugh — just a very, very attractive person.”
Spence, who got to know Bill and Hillary Clinton when they worked in Texas on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, tried to steer Clinton out of a rough patch in 2008 after her early losses to Obama. He is credited with soft-focus initiatives to reveal what he called “Hillary’s heart.”
Mark McKinnon, a friend and competitor of Spence and a media strategist with George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, said: “Spence and Clark have a lot of experience refreshing established, well-known brands like AT&T, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart. Should come in handy.”
Spence and Clark have been credited with creating three-dimensional personalities around otherwise dull consumer brands. At Coca-Cola, Clark spearheaded the “Share a Coke” campaign to put names such as Brittany and Zach on soda cans, a marketing move that boosted sales among millennials. Spence helped DoubleTree Hotels make the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies the chain serves guests upon check-in an icon for its sales pitch of warm comfort for beleaguered travelers.
But Fred Davis, a Republican advertising guru, said that if Clinton’s rebranding “seems like a craven attempt to try to put fresh paint on an old house, then it will backfire.”
“I think most voters are actually pretty intelligent, and they’ll see through any blatant attempt to change,” Davis said. “Her only hope, to me, is not a rebranding, but it’s actual policy positions and ideas that are fresh and new — and because those are fresh and new, voters might think, ‘Wait a minute, I’m going to give her another chance.’ ”
Some Clinton allies agreed. They dismissed the suggestion that refreshing her brand alone will make the candidate seem current. They said Clinton’s paramount challenge is to answer two questions: why she is the right person to step into the Oval Office, and what she would do when she’s there. If she does that, they said, her image will take care of itself.
“I don’t think people are looking for someone who’s being reinvented or rebranded,” said Steve Elmendorf, a top Democratic lobbyist who was a strategist for Clinton’s 2008 bid and other presidential campaigns. “This is somebody they know, whom they have confidence in, and the question is, can she lead us to a better place over the next four years? That’s her biggest challenge. What are the new ideas? . . . It can’t be yesterday’s program.”
Sealey, who is credited with the successful “Always Coca-Cola” campaign in the 1990s, said that Clinton, like Coke, “has incredible top-of-mind awareness, and it’s a huge asset.”
“The issue is: What is her promise?” he said. “With Mercedes, it’s quality. With Volvo, it’s safety. With Coca-Cola, it’s refreshment. If you can get her promise down to one word, that’s the key.”
Spence’s business partner, Haley Rushing, said their approach to all clients, corporate and political, “starts with them at the center,” rather than market trends. “We always start from the inside out, not the outside in,” she said.
Rushing and Spence co-founded the Purpose Institute, where Rushing’s title is “chief purposeologist” and the staffers act as “organizational therapists” uncovering the central purposes of their client organizations. Rushing said she is not working on the Clinton effort but that she envisions a Clinton brand built around years of experience. She said, “Everything emanates from, ‘What is Hillary’s purpose in the world?’ ”
Clinton has faced that question before, with mixed results.
After a complicated tenure as first lady, Clinton reinvented herself as a potholes-and-pork senator from her adopted state of New York. Then she ran for president as a tough woman in the mold of Margaret Thatcher. Failing that, she had a careful run as the country’s top diplomat under Obama that allies believe raised her stature.
Perhaps her most significant rebranding came in 2000, when she became a popular elected official in her own right after her husband’s Monica Lewinsky scandal and after a controversial tenure as first lady. Clinton was ridiculed as a dilettante and a carpetbagger, but she won over critics, even some Republicans, with a dogged commitment to local issues.
In 2008, however, Clinton’s rebranding went badly, starting with a misreading of the zeitgeist that had her stressing her commander-in-chief qualifications when the public preferred Obama’s promise of hope and change.
Clinton’s advisers were divided then about how to bust the caricature of Clinton as remote and brittle. Some begged Clinton to reprise a campaign feature that had charmed New York voters, in which she stayed in ordinary people’s homes while traveling around the state. But Clinton insisted that doing so in Iowa or New Hampshire would come across as forced.
Similarly, an online compilation of testimonials meant to showcase Clinton’s humanity and relatability fell flat. Too cheesy, some advisers said; at odds with her strength-and-competence message, others said.
A rebranding that stuck: Clinton’s workmanlike turn as secretary of state, during which she visited more countries than most of her predecessors — and used her celebrity to draw attention to women’s empowerment and human rights issues.
Now, Clinton will try to refresh her image once more so that voters see her as a champion for the middle class amid deep concerns about income inequality. Rohit Deshpande, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, offered a fast-food giant as a case study.
“Refresh with the times is the issue McDonald’s is facing right now,” he said. “It’s considered tired, and the marketplace has moved on. ”
Fabian Geyrhalter, a corporate branding consultant, also drew a parallel between McDonald’s and Clinton: “There has been a brand value proposition over so many years, and suddenly she needs to shift that legacy into Clinton 2016: ‘This is what I stand for now.’ ”
Alice Crites contributed to this report