December 30, 2008

The litany of McCain errors - Part 4

The 2008 McCain campaign made several errors that likely cost him a winnable election. Money, strategy and demographics prime among the errors. Another area in which the McCain campaign underperformed was in Branding and Messaging. Those are crucial parts of any marketing effort, and running for President is in many ways similar to selling shoes; getting the message to sink in matters, and getting the branding right matters.


During the election cycle, I listened to POTUS '08 on XM satellite radio religiously. It provided great insights from Sept/Oct 2007 onward. A number of guests were of interest but particularly interesting was Thom Mozloom of He talked weekly with host Scott Walterman about branding in the campaign. He critiqued the efforts of each campaign. Unfortunately I've only been able to find a few older podcasts in the early spring of 2008, otherwise I'd try to share some of his commentary with you. He made some great points though about branding.

Two of his key points stuck with me;

1) You have to brand yourself, don't let the other guy do it for you or you'll get a brand image that suits them and not you.
2) You have to be clear and consistent in your branding. Your messages that follow, should be in alignment with your brand and will make more sense in that context.

With respect to both points, McCain failed miserably. By the time it became clear McCain needed Pennsylvania, it had also become fairly obvious that McCain's message could not penetrate the cacophony of Obama messaging in any of the key states he needed to defend. Worse still the message was all over the place, as if in the waning days of the campaign he was still looking for some message to resonate and stick with voters. Think about what was being put out there - drill baby drill, an all of the above approach to energy independence, Joe The Plumber, I'm a maverick, I'm change with meaning, I was right on Iraq and Obama was wrong, look at me I'm on Saturday Night Live so I'm cool and hip, Obama isn't ready for this. The list goes on and on. The messages may have been some of the right things to say, but look at that list. No wonder nothing stuck.

When Colin Powell is savaging your message, you've got real, serious problems. Colin Powell has done little to endear himself to the conservatives that once supported him. Back in October he endorsed Obama for President. Colin Powell's words probably mean very little to conservatives any more, but there are a few to which we should be listening (pay attention at 1:35, where he starts to make relevant statements. Ignore his take on it, but pay attention to what he says about shifting arguments and negativity);

What was Obama's brand and what was McCain's? I skipped over to The Huffington Post to look at a head-to-head comparison on branding. Keep in mind HuffPo is left, left, left and there's bias in the analysis. But just because they are the ideological enemy doesn't mean they don't have some valid points on the mechanics. Besides, if your 'enemy' does your work for you, why not leverage it?
John Tepper Marlin in October, had this to say;

On November 4 the American people will buy the Obama or McCain brand. I think the Obama brand is winning on seven criteria:

1. Logos. The Obama Campaign chose an icon that captured the feeling of sunrise over a field of red and white stripes. There is also a subtle "O" for Obama that is in play here though the name Obama is not used in the icon. This makes it a universal logo/icon to which anyone can bring his or her own meaning.  
It also communicates the Obama brand style. The McCain Campaign chose a logo that comes directly out of his family heritage of three generations in the U.S. Navy, as well as his prisoner-of-war-hero-status political leader. The colors of blue and gold are the U.S. Navy colors; the star icon comes directly from military-rank designations on uniforms. Graphic icons are more new school in the branding world, indicating change. Names on logos are more old school, indicating traditional values.

2. DNA. The Obama brand has a clearly defined brand code delivered in a simple three-word line. "Yes We Can". McCain has not clarified his brand code.His brand has delivered multiple messages - "Change You Can Believe In", "Country First", "Reform Prosperity Peace", "Don't Hope for a Better Life, Vote for One", "Courageous Service. Experienced Leadership. Bold Solutions".

3. Benefit. Obama has a clear product benefit. "Hope". It is hard to discern from the variety of McCain's brand messages what his product benefit actually is.

4. Positioning. The Obama brand positioning is We/People based. The McCain brand positioning is more Me/McCain based. If you would like to see evidence of this go to the Brooklyn Art Project site and see their Visual Word Maps. These word maps reveal the Obama and McCain campaign strategies by the top words used.

5. Values. If a brand is to be trusted it has to shed light on its values. Obama conveys the values of hope and unity. The McCain campaign has attempted to undermine these values, starting with exploitation of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermon on YouTube. This inspired Obama to give a well-regarded speech on race in America on March 18 at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. This strengthened the Obama brand, as Obama showed he could stand up to adversity. McCain has clearly communicated that he values country and service but it's not clear how this message relates to current economic, energy, and environmental challenges facing America. Television coverage today showed Palin with "Country First" in the place of McCain's name on the campaign logo. These two words sound like implicature - a new word for the ancient practice of implying or suggesting something more than what it said. Saying that McCain puts his country first implies that Obama does not. It's as if Coca-Cola advertised "No Arsenic Added" - a statement that is surely true, but carries the (false) implication that other brands of soda do add arsenic. Sarah Palin at the same time was suggesting that Obama "pals around" with terrorists, the evidence being a long New York Times story on Bill Ayers that in fact concludes that the connection between Ayers and Obama, who both served on the Chicago Annenberg Project, was not very strong.

6. Mission. A brand must have a clearly defined mission so that its messages flow in one direction. Obama's mission is to bring "Change to America". The fact that he is the first African American running for the president of the United States is the embodiment of this mission. There could be no bigger change than an Obama administration and the Obama family in the White House. McCain's claim that he will bring reform to Washington with bold solutions is harder to buy into, no matter how much he positions himself as a maverick. The McCain brand simply hasn't demonstrated that his administration would be different from the last eight years under George W. Bush.

7. Vision. Finally, every great brand must have great vision. The Obama brand's "One Nation" vision is wrapped up in his quote "There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." This viewpoint is the uniting principle that the Obama brand has promulgated throughout the country. The McCain brand vision is a world that is more threatening and fear based. He says: "We must win in Iraq. If we withdraw, there will be chaos; there will be genocide; and they will follow us home." A vision of fear in how we face our challenges here and around the world will diminish us. It will make us smaller and this is not the America that we want to see at home or how we want to continue to be seen around the world.
Interestingly he starts with the superficial - logos. Would you expect anything different from a liberal? Tomorrow 'll discuss communication, charisma and celebrity, and look at this. But I digress. The points he makes, while partisan, are fundamentally valid points. Democrats, taken by superficiality, and hampered by an inferior product have typically been better at branding. They've had to be. But the time is upon us when branding has become a critical facet of campaigning, and it's something the GOP had better have buttoned down for 2010 and 2012 if they hope to stem the blue tide of electoral victory that has unfortunately swept across America. If America is still a center-right country, there should not be so much blue on the map. But better marketing makes for more success. There's plenty of examples where an inferior product beats out a better one with inferior marketing. Think VHS versus Betamax. More recently Blu-Ray bead out HDD for high definition DVDs. Was it better? Honestly I have no clue, but Sony sure did something right.

McCain interestingly did get some positive traction with the celebrity ad trying to define Obama. But the campaign didn't have a successful follow up for it. Perhaps, given the dispersed messages they thought they had an adequate follow up. Or perhaps they were unprepared for the success of this piece.

So they were capable of making a splash. Unfortunately it was in defining their opponent and they had nothing in the hopper to do the same for defining John McCain as a brand. At the convention the intro video was all about John McCain and it defined his past very well. But it didn't give you the idea of what his vision was. In fact, as mentioned above, it was about him, not about America. That in itself was a branding problem.

I've never understood why real estate agents try so hard to sell themselves. They take pictures of themselves to feature in ads, but honestly, WHO CARES what your real estate agent looks like? I am buying or selling a house, not the agent. What I'm interested in his the house itself. What I'm peripherally interested in (if I'm selling) is the agent's sales record of success. If John McCain's branding team is selling the picture of McCain on the For Sale sign, and not the house (America) or what the agent (McCain) can accomplish, then they have entirely missed the point of branding. We're not 'buying' McCain. We're buying a fixer-upper house (America), or a mansion (America) depending on your point of view. But neither view cares what the agent looks like.

Obama got this one right. He beat Clinton on branding and handily beat McCain too. Ad Age honored Obama as Marketer of the Year, as well the should have. He sold a mansion as an agent who knew virtually nothing about the housing market - both figuratively in my analogy and literally as it turns out in the mortgage crisis.

January 4th, in Part 5, I will look at the final area of the McCain campaign weakness.


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  2. Good analysis of the McLame campaign. Have you ever considered that McCain was actually not trying to win? His campaign's handling of the only positive aspect of the Lame Campaign, Palin told me that someone was inside and working to cross purposes.
    Remember how Palin almost bucked the LC about pulling out of MI?


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