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Obama or Romney: Which brand has the bigger marketing challenge?

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I'm a political junkie. Even though I ended up pursuing a career in marketing, I studied politics in college and actually spent a few months interning at the White House. While I didn't want to make a career of politics, I still follow it very closely.

And for us political junkies out there, this entire year is like our Super Bowl. I love watching the drama of the debates, the evolving strategies of candidates as they try to win the nomination and, of course, the political ads. I think most of us dislike those ads. But if there's any question in your mind that TV ads actually work, just watch the polls after a hard-hitting negative ad. There's always an impact—unfortunately.

Like most people, I do have a political bias. But for this article I'm looking at the political campaign through the lens of a marketer, so hopefully I don't let any partisanship shine through.

When looking at the two candidates, I view them like competitive brands. Coke and Pepsi, Apple and Microsoft, Obama and Romney. Yeah, I know Mitt isn't the nominee yet. But, for purposes of this article, let's just assume he will be.

So which brand has an advantage going into the general election, Obama or Romney?

As marketers, we always look for that “unmet need” in the marketplace. Because we know that if our product or service is able to meet that need, there’s a high probability that we’ll be successful.

There’s a clear unmet need in the country, the need for government to work. People want to feel that our elected representatives actually are accomplishing something rather than playing politics and looking to the next election cycle.

During the last four years, government hasn't worked. And that’s not an opinion. Almost 90% of people think government is broken. There's plenty of blame to go around. But the fact is, it’s not working. Congress has a 9% approval rating. That's a lower approval rating than polygamists (11%) and pornographers (30%). My question is, who are the 9% who actually approve of the job Congress is doing?

I think what people want more than anything is for their government to get something done. There are too many big problems to solve. The silly political games that happen in Washington are foreign to most of us. I mean, what if we went to work at our offices and spent all day every day trying to prevent our peers from getting things done? The company would fail and we'd all be out of work.

That's why the “Obama brand” has a difficult marketing narrative. He has been the “CEO” of this gridlocked government for three years. He hasn't been able to make it work. It's not all his fault, and this is a burden that most incumbent presidents have to carry. But, in the final analysis, he hasn't met that need.

For a marketer, that could be a tough narrative to reshape. Now, Obama is a great communicator and I have no doubt that he will be able to make a compelling case for four more years. But the dysfunction of Washington is firmly shackled to his ankle. And that's a heavy weight to drag around.

Romney has some serious brand problems of his own. His wealth and success don't connect him to Middle America. His change of positions on key issues has also created the perception that he'd do or say anything to get elected.

On the flip side, his experience as both a business executive and a governor could give his marketing message an advantage over Obama. He can claim that he has the experience to solve the core pain, that Washington doesn't work. Romney will claim there are several key reasons to believe he can get the government working:

  • He was a Republican governor of Massachusetts, a left-leaning state. To get things done, he had to work across the aisle to make the state government work. Even Ed Rendell, former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, acknowledges that Romney was a "good governor."
  • He was a very successful businessman, as evidenced by his wealth and the long-term success of Bain Capital, the venture capital company he headed in the 1980s and 1990s. And being successful in business requires the ability to collaborate and get things done.
  • He led the turnaround of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, from scandal to success. He showed he could fix an organization that was broken.

In a nutshell, the Romney brand message is all about making organizations work, whether it’s a government or a business. And that is what people really want. That’s the unmet need.

But having the better marketing message on paper and being able to effectively tell that story are two completely different things. From what I've seen in the primaries, that’s where Romney will struggle. He just has not shown that he can effectively communicate his competitive advantage versus the president. And, he's going up against one of the greatest communicators who has ever resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

If Romney can't figure out how to tell his story before November, I'd bet on Obama. But it's still very early and a lot can change between now and then. The political junkie in me can't wait to see what happens.

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