The presidential primary season has entered its post-announcement phase with more flights and hotel rooms booked into Iowa and New Hampshire than at any time since July 2011. The field of candidates is even more crowded than expected.
This is especially true on the GOP side, with 14 declared candidates, none of whom has been able to establish anything close to frontrunner status. The leading candidate, the one with the family brand name, is currently polling under 20% with no fewer than 10 candidates behind him in single digits. On the Democratic side, the family brand name is also the frontrunner. To date, there have been no hiccups or dramas for this candidate despite being targeted every day by every candidate on both sides.
What is apparent at this stage is that current polls numbers can mostly be attributed to name recognition.
Not all of the candidates will be accepting this trend for long. Some are already getting attention by taking outrageous (and occasionally) irrational and indefensible positions on sensitive issues. Employing these “shock and awe” tactics is simply about making up for lack of name recognition. This works up to a point, but over the long haul a full brand strategy has to be part of any successful campaign.
History suggests that successful candidates are defined as both problem solvers and likable people. So are most consumer brands.
The often-repeated punch line that gave George W. Bush an advantage over John Kerry in 2004 was that the “W Brand” would be way more fun to sit down and have a beer with than the “Kerry Brand.” Bush advertising consistently portrayed him on the farm, on the union shop floor, and in the classroom. Kerry, on the other hand, was on a wind-surfer in Cabo. Voters were naturally positioned to view Bush as a regular guy. The “W” brand became synonymous with “easy going” (by comparison) to the “Kerry” brand, which came across as elitist.
Sometimes the personal brand of a candidate takes time to develop. In 2010, and again in 2014, we provided data and online targeting capability for a gubernatorial campaign. The candidate entered his first statewide campaign with a solid reputation. The campaign emphasized his credentials as a business executive and as an effective turnaround expert. The campaign didn’t pay much attention to his personal story and he struggled with low name recognition numbers throughout. After losing to the incumbent governor, he ran again in 2014. The cumulative effect of television, online, and offline advertising over time fixed his name recognition problem and this time with a softer, more personalized message, he was able to combine business competence with personal appeal and win.
How politicians create name recognition and establish their personal brand should involve the same level of rigor applied to building the brand for a product or a service. Building a political brand can be tricky but there is a rudimentary formula that is worth considering for either product or candidate;
- Positive Messaging: A single issue can define a product or candidate. A voter is a consumer, and a solution for a positive move forward is always better than a problem raised with no answer.
- Relentless Consistency: In this day and age of email, social media, YouTube, search, smartphones, and network and on-demand TV, you need to be everywhere with your message, and you can be. In the Obama re-election campaign every follower received between five and 20 emails per day. We don’t recommend email abuse, but we do recommend that campaigns define their voters’ full digital footprints early and use email, social, display, WiFi hotspots, events, and smartphones to distribute your message. Be persistent to the point that the individual voter is engaged three to five times a day across multiple platforms throughout the campaign.
- The Three-Legged Stool: In addition to being positive, it is important to be thorough and support your argument. Every product or candidate has more than one thing going for it. Aspirin is a known pain reliever, but it is also fast acting and can be a great value. The candidate’s issue might be immigration, healthcare, or taxes, but the story they tell should be about associating the candidate with a clear vision of how to fix the problem, a record of achievement, and the clear support of family and friends to see it through.
Campaigns need to manage a candidate’s brand as if it was a new consumer product coming to market, using multiple platforms to deliver a consistently positive message with a personal touch that a buyer can identify with.