Experts split on Bush: is strategy too risky?

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as the presidential campaign heads into the final debate this week, branding experts are as divided as the electoral polls about whether the Bush campaign has presented a positive enough image of the President.

The campaign's tack-using most of its advertising to contrast George W. Bush with Sen. John Kerry and repeatedly accuse Mr. Kerry of flip-flopping and taking the wrong position on the war on terror-poses risk if voters see the debates and don't buy that Mr. Kerry flip flops, experts said. But President Bush's supporters said the ads have defined Mr. Kerry and should continue.

"[Mr. Bush's] challenge in his positioning is to be incredibly clear and I don't think that is coming through," said Patrick Meyer, CEO of NOW, a Southport, Conn., management and marketing consultant. He said the ads don't provide "what he stands for and the clear benefits to the American population." Branding, he said, needs to do more than "to denigrate your competition."

But Mr. Meyer also made clear he doesn't think the Kerry campaign is doing much better at getting across Mr. Kerry as a brand. The lack of a clear brand image makes both candidates more susceptible to the debate results, said Mr. Meyer.

Sig Rogich, CEO of Rogich Communications Group in Las Vegas and the ad executive behind Ronald Reagan's ad team, said there is no need to present a favorable brand image for the president. "He's been president for four years. The American people already know what he is about," he said. He praised the Bush campaign's effort as "a good strategy that points out the deficiencies with Mr. Kerry."

addressing differences

"They need to address the differences," he said, adding that the president is reintroducing himself on a daily basis with proposals for the tax code, Social Security and health care.

The Bush campaign started out fine, but then made mistakes, said Gary Stibel, CEO of the New England Consulting Group. "The Republicans orchestrated their marketing plan brilliantly. They allowed Kerry to have his day in the sun, then came on strong. But since then, they have allowed the Bush brand to falter. Kerry has smartly changed course to take advantage and he is coming on strong."

Mr. Stibel suggested the Bush campaign is making a classic marketing mistake. "As marketers, you dramatize the solution, not the problem. But [Bush's ads] have focused more on the competition than the benefit. When they say Kerry is wishy-washy and people see the debate and that doesn't appear to be accurate, it doesn't resonate. You must shift the emphasis to focus on benefits," he said. "They must do it fast because Kerry is coming on very strong."

Bob Gardner, president of Gardner Geary Coll, San Francisco, said positive campaign advertising "has gone by the wayside." And further, it isn't the right tack at this point, said Mr. Gardner, who has been involved in GOP campaigns in the past.

hammering away

"When you are this close, you have got to define the differences. ... There are so many other forums, campaign speeches and debates" in which to be positive, he said. "Bush is stronger on the war on terrorism and you have to hammer that home. There is an inherent positive message in hammering away at the weakness."

David Aaker, vice chairman of consultant Prophet Brand Strategy and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business, suggests the Bush campaign may have little choice in doing comparison ads because the context for Iraq must be presented to its advantage. "The Republican strategy is to influence the context of Iraq [suggesting] that it is all about 9/11. They really have no other choice because all of the other reasons for invading Iraq have disappeared."

branding unneeded

But Bush campaign officials said branding messages are unneeded.

"Ads are not very good vehicles for image enhancements for incumbent presidents," said Matthew Dowd, the campaign's chief strategist, noting that 70% of the Clinton campaign ads in 1996 were about rival Sen. Bob Dole.

"People know the president. And the concrete is dry. They don't know Kerry. And the concrete has not set," said Mark McKinnon, head of the campaign's Maverick Media ad team. "In a race where more than half the people think the country is headed in the wrong direction, the last thing you want is the election to be just about the incumbent," he said.

contributing: kate macarthur

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