Presidential Brands: The 2012 U.S. Elections

The following is an article written specifically for Intellectual Property Magazine, and may be found in the February/March 2013 edition (http://www.intellectualpropertymagazine.com). The body text of the article is fully reproduced below, without footnotes, in accordance with my agreement with the magazine. 

The American public reelected Barack Obama as their president this past November by a relatively slim margin, comparing Obama’s 62.6 million votes to Mitt Romney’s 59.1 million. It is difficult to precisely state the effects of the candidates’ respective brands, but it cannot be denied that their brands had a large effect on the ultimate decision of who voters cast their ballot for.

Discussing the brand image of a particular good or service inevitably conjures up the cumulative emotional experience associated with that brand. The sound or sight of the word “Lindt” may invoke pleasant feelings resulting from enjoyable past occasions involving the giving or receiving of a Lindt chocolate bar; and the simple mention of the letters “BP” in mid-2010 would likely have generated thoughts of failure and disappointment resulting from press coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In a similar vein, the American presidential candidates’ names and campaigns also generated impressions upon voters which regularly shifted in accordance with ongoing current events. Taking a look to a few notable events occurring during the course of the election campaigns, one can examine how the candidates responded to those events in an effort to bolster or preserve the perception of their brand amongst the voting public.

Opening Night
A snapshot of each candidate during his nomination acceptance speech is revealing of their intentions with respect to their brand and image. As both candidates already secured their nominations some time before those speeches took place, they had the opportunity to carefully plan their speeches, and no doubt with attention to every minute detail.
Barack Obama´s Nomination Acceptance Speech

On 6 September 2012, Obama delivered his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. After stepping onto the stage against a blue backdrop spotted with white stars to the easy-paced song “City of Blinding Lights” by U2, he embraced and kissed his wife, who had just introduced him.

The chosen song was a Grammy award winning song released in 2004, and a safe bet for appealing to an audience as wide as the voting adult population. The imagery of the president kissing his wife painted a picture of a loving man, communicating the notion of, “even though I’m the president, I still tend to my personal life”. This contributed to Obama’s brand by appealing to voters on a basic, human level.

In assessing Obama’s speech, one can refer to the words most used:

NEW

20

FUTURE

16

JOBS

16

AMERICA

15

YEARS

14

BELIEVE

13

HOPE

12

MUST

12

PAY

12

WORKERS

10

Obama’s word selection demonstrates an attempt to appeal to a forward-looking voter. Focusing on the “new”, asking voters to “believe” and to have “hope” and addressing the “future” and “jobs” all have the effect of conjuring good feelings amongst voters in an otherwise uncertain economic situation. It is a brand that does not focus too much on the current situation and says, “believe and have hope in the future, because it is bright”.

Mitt Romney´s Nomination Acceptance Speech

Mitt Romney formally accepted his nomination on 30 August 2012. After being introduced by prominent Republican politician Marco Rubio,  Romney walked onto the stage from the crowd, shaking hands along the way. He stepped onto a stage that was red and white with a small amount of blue to the country-rock tune of “Born Free” by artist Kid Rock. Above Romney, a large screen centered in the background displayed a stylised “We Believe in America” sign.

Romney’s chosen song was released in 2010, and thus newer than Obama’s intro song, with perhaps less quantitative appeal power simply due to its lack of longevity. Romney walked to the stage from the crowd, shaking hands along the way, an effort to demonstrate a “presidential” look-and-feel; that he could walk and talk like a president.

Romney delivered his acceptance speech which contained the following most-used words:

AMERICA/AMERICAN(S)

92

JOB/JOBS

26

WORLD

18

BETTER

17

EVERY

15

FUTURE

13

PRESIDENT

21

OBAMA

13

Romney tried appealing to voters by heavily using the words “America” and “Americans”, using these more than three times the amount of the next words used most frequently in his speech, “job” and “jobs”. Perhaps then, it is no coincidence that domestic economic issues were his strong point. In fact, from national opinion polls, it was almost the only issue in which  Romney was perceived as more competent than Obama, amongst other issues such as, “dealing with issues concerning women’s rights”, “looking out for the middle class”, and “connecting well with ordinary Americans”. In this regard, Romney successfully emphasized his ability in economic matters by associating his ability with his brand early and continuously, despite the fact that he was ultimately unsuccessful in winning the election.

Party Reputation Affecting Candidate Reputation

On 19 August 2012, Republican Congressman and 2012 Senate candidate Todd Akin gave an interview in which the issue of abortion arose. When Akin, an opponent of abortion, was asked whether he believed abortion should be allowed in rape cases, he replied that his understanding from doctors was that pregnancy in rape cases were rare, adding, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” The comment went viral, and cast a negative shadow on the Republican brand, and consequently on Romney’s brand, which was highly intertwined with his party’s brand.

Romney immediately rebuked the comment, stating that Akin’s comments were, “insulting, inexcusable and, frankly wrong…Like millions of Americans, we found them to be offensive.” Later that day, Romney reasserted his position with stronger language, stating about Akin, “His comments were deeply offensive, and I can’t defend what he said. I can’t defend him.”

This particular incident highlights the effects of brand association. A sharp response from Romney was necessary to avoid the negative association with Akin, an association rooted in their common membership of the Republican party. Akin’s comments were perceived as a reflection of the party, and Romney’s campaign would have absorbed some of that negativity had the viral comment been ignored. Had the comment not gone viral, Romney’s response may not have been necessitated, as the viral nature of the comment is what negatively affected the Republican brand and required Romney to act. The effect of a comment more severe but less public would perhaps not have tarnished the brand as badly, and consequently would not have justified a diversion of resources by Romney to address it.

Obama´s First Debate Performance

On 3 October 2012, the two presidential candidates faced off for their first of three presidential debates. Mitt Romney did quite well in this first round, with 67% of surveyed debate watchers stating that Romney performed better than Obama, and 35% saying they were more likely to vote for Romney as a result of that performance. Journalists from major media outlets also chimed in, stating there was, “very little dispute about who won…Romney clobbered President Barack Obama” and simply that, “Obama failed.”

At a campaign event following the debate, Obama sought to rectify the sting of the first debate on his brand, making repeated references to Romney’s inadequacies of the previous night, such as, “when he (Romney) was asked what he’d actually do to cut the deficit and reduce spending, he said he’d eliminate funding for public television.” Obama continued to work on the negative image resulting from the first debate, using a combination of attacking Romney’s first debate performance and the taking on of a humble approach. Even weeks later, Obama himself very publicly admitted that he had an “off night”. It is important to note that Obama used stronger language when attacking Romney before a crowd of supporters, and acted with more humility on a subsequent pop-culture, nationally broadcast talk show. By using an immediate and continued strategy of addressing his weak performance in the first debate in a manner tailored to the intended audience, Obama patched the imperfection left in his brand from the first debate.

Analysis

In many ways, the presidential election is a brand competition where instead of dollars, success is measured in votes. Instead of typical consumer needs such as price and quality, voter needs come in the form of dedication to ideas about how the nation and the president should be. The calculated presentations of the candidates on the night of their nomination acceptance speeches were crafted to appeal to voters’ ideas of how their president should look, walk and talk. It was a concern for womens’ rights which drove Akin’s comments viral and left a bad brand association with the Republican party. Thus, the issues set the stage for a competition of the candidates’ brands, and the cumulative effects of repeated communication across multiple mediums and several months contributed to the overall impression of the voting public as to how the candidates’ brands related to voters’ political leanings.

Because presidential campaigns in the United States are relatively long, with early efforts arguably beginning years before election day, a candidate’s brand has numerous possibilities to progress or falter. For this reason, attentiveness to candidate branding should begin early and be maintained regularly, dealt with by an adaptive and clever campaign team. While certain events cannot be controlled, the manner in which a candidate responds, or does not respond, will contribute to the overall impression of a candidate’s brand. On election day, that overall brand impression drives the only decision that matters: the vote.

– ck
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