Brands and Presidential Candidates Face the Same Authenticity Challenges

Three Ways Brands and Candidates Can Differentiate Themselves

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Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is authentic. He doesn't back down from his positions -- for good or bad -- and stays true to his blustery words. While I kind of hate myself for saying this, brands can learn a lot from Donald Trump. Likewise, White House wannabes can learn a lot from smart brands.

As we enter what will be an extended period of campaigning, with almost 20 Republican challengers in the field and a slowly growing field of contenders for the Democratic race, I am struck by the many similarities that candidates and brands face in differentiating their "products" for today's consumers. There's certainly an overflow of choice, whether you are marketing a soap or you're the speaker on a soap box.

So how do you stand out from the competition? As recently reported in these pages, there's very little differentiation among the candidates whose slogans and positions all sound alike. Having helped challenger brands rise above bigger and higher spenders, I believe there are three key elements to articulating your brand's best self to set you apart in a crowded field or overstocked shelf, and to help give consumers a reason to fall in love with you or your product.

Authenticity rules

This is an age of transparency. The consumer wants it real. They read packaging and labels, follow your brand on multiple social channels, and want to have a relationship with their most favorite products. They want the same thing from their candidates. In Obama's first campaign, he tapped into this sentiment early on, using social media as the first touchpoint and then having a personal dialogue with the voter. We know it worked because his campaign was the first to attract small donations from so many individuals across the country.

We also know when it goes wrong. Every airline has seen its popularity rise and fall with consumers' frequent call-outs of bad flying experiences. We can't help but be reminded of Mitt Romney revealing his true colors in a presentation to donors he thought was private. Today, there is no such thing as private. And any bad experience is open for critics to complain about.

Being genuine at the onset and not backing down sometimes means taking the heat. But it also can earn respect for staying true to your positions.

Have a mission

Great brands today stand for something. That's what differentiates them from the pack. Apple is the obvious and well-touted example. We know its mission is to make simply designed products that are easy to use and make our lives better. Well-known TED speaker, author and former ad guy Simon Sinek notes that all great and inspired brands and politicians "start with why." They differentiate themselves by talking about why they do something, not what they do and how they do it.

Under Armour is one newer brand that is guided by a mission -- relentlessly overcoming obstacles in all areas of competition. Its message is resonating with consumers and also winning awards. Its "I Will What I Want" brand positioning is about empowerment. It is also a platform that clearly sets Under Armour apart from brand giant Nike.

Apple and Under Armour are brands that we love. The lesson here is that people will always care more about who you are and what you stand for than what you do. After all, products and services change all the time. But your core beliefs and values never change. And when these resonate -- when consumers believe what you or your product or service stands for -- they don't just buy your product. They buy in to what you're about.

Be relevant

Being relevant and of the moment ties closely into authenticity and mission. You have to be in touch with the dynamics of culture and the needs of consumers at this moment in time to build connections. This is true for brands and is just as true for candidates.

For one of the many contenders vying to lead our country, there is an opportunity to break out from the pack mentality and embrace a point of view that demonstrates he or she really gets the issues of the day. The challenge is obviously finding a way to hold the party line while simultaneously breaking free.

Consider the challenge that brands in highly regulated industries face. There's no real difference between what insurance carriers offer -- their product is a commodity. Yet many different carriers have distinguished themselves by occupying a distinctive space. For Geico, it's price; for Allstate, trust; and for Progressive, innovation. And so on.

Many pundits have lamented the state of the GOP and its inability to be in touch with the needs of "everyman." The candidate who finds a way to articulate a mission that voters believe and reflects the changing dynamics of our times will be able to set himself or herself apart from the pack.

Just as brands are able to carve out a niche in a sea of sameness, presidential hopefuls need their own unique selling proposition.

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