Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2004 / 4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Abe Novick

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Consumer Reports

Election brand-standing | Imagine this: It's Wednesday, Nov. 3. and John Kerry just lost the election. Since he ain't goin' to Disneyworld, what should he be thinking? What went wrong?

One big word jumps to mind — branding. Brands stand for something and Mr. Kerry never gave a clear, consistent brand message. He was, from the outset, the anti-brand. He was not George W. Bush.

The chant from Democrats even supported this argument by declaring, "Anyone but Bush." He was never the challenger brand, offering up something better.

Imagine if Pepsi's tagline was "Anything but Coke." Or BMW claimed, "We're not Mercedes." It doesn't happen for good reason. Rather, when you think of BMW you think performance. With Pepsi, you think youth. Clear. Simple.

When you think George Bush, you think "tough on terror." And terror is the issue of this election. Had Mr. Kerry's team realized it early and made the case he can fight it smarter, better and safer than Mr. Bush by hammering away at it for a good solid year, it would've been a different race and a different outcome.

It should be obvious, therefore, that the consultants (hacks) who make most political ads don't understand branding. Both Parties and pols should move away from the cheap, next-day attack ad and that ubiquitous mentality rife among these so-called "strategists" and embrace the longer-lasting effects of developing and building up their candidates with a clear, storied message from the outset. Under such a larger umbrella, they can hang all of the communication points they want. They can even shift, ever-so-slightly, but remain on course. Consequently, in the end, a tack right, or left will still support the overarching message the candidate stands for. To borrow a Led Zepplin title, "The song remains the same."

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I get annoyed when I hear how a politician can't be branded. I'm told they are not Pepsi or BMW and branding can't work for a person as it does for some silly consumer product. Bunk.

For clearly everything is branded today Look at how you dress. You stand for something. Look at the music you like. It says something about you. It brands you. Look at what you drive.

In today's pop-culture, pols are celebrities and celebrities are brands. From Oprah and Martha to Hillary and Bill.

Mr. Kerry's problem was never being properly launched. He was never introduced in a way that voters would say, "Oh yeah, Kerry. He's. . . ." Instead, he let his opposition define him. In fact, he was launched by accident. When Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt nullified each other in Iowa, Mr. Kerry was left to cross the finish line and win the gold.

To those familiar with him, he was known for Vietnam. But Vietnam never should have been his message. It's history, 30-year-old news. Admittedly, had Mr. Kerry been a known entity to the public all those years and been indisputably famous for his heroism, then perhaps he could have played off it and been seen as a heritage brand. In other words, it was somehow destined he would become president.

But Vietnam is a hornet's nest of painful emotions and bad feelings. It's not World War II. Therefore, it's a shaky base on which to build and support your brand. It's utter controversy. And what happened? The same old divisions came back, like ghosts, to haunt his campaign.

Even Bill Clinton built his campaign on the future — hope. The music filling the air at his convention was a reunited (symbolic) Fleetwood Mac, singing "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." Any draft-dodging attacks would be deflected because: That was back when. He was looking to the future. His story touched on the past, but didn't wallow there.

Mr. Clinton's campaign actually had a clear direction and consistent message and, so, he won. His campaign also employed the hottest New York ad agency at the time, Deutsch, to help craft his ads.

Ronald Reagan's famous Tuesday Team in 1984 is another great example of exceptional brand-builders in a campaign.

Unless and until the parties, politicians and, in particular, the Democrats understand the power of branding they will lose elections. Until they depart from used-car ads, as opposed to the great work agencies consistently do for the likes of car brands such as Saturn, Volkswagon and BMW, they will be lost in the woods unable to see the forest.

Branding is not a dirty word. It shouldn't be in elections. It should be the word.

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JWR contributor Abe Novick is senior vice president of Eisner Communications in Baltimore. Comment by clicking here.

09/27/04: Could Philip Roth's forthcoming novel tip the scales in favor of Bush?
08/05/04: Kerry & pre-emptive shopping
07/30/04: Yanks, Sox & Dems
06/02/04: Fashioning a convention
03/31/04: Morphing of terrorist image
01/22/04: What the Dems can learn from Yertle The Turtle
11/09/03: Dump Cheney. Bring on Giuliani.
10/17/03: The American crabwalk tempo
08/13/03: Auh-nold and Our Comic Book Nation
07/25/03: "Failing celebrityhood
06/19/03: "Everything that deceives may be said to enchant" is as true as ever
04/09/03: American media becoming embedded with the enemy?

© 2003, Abe Novick