Mr. Obama had a lot to prove. Despite his popularity, going into the Democratic National Convention he was still seen by many as all brand and little product, a name that rose on viral videos, celebrity endorsements and youthful enthusiasm. By the end of the tightly controlled DNC, the Obama campaign had managed to shore up its perceived lack of experience by adding Joe Biden to the ticket; bring Hillary Clinton supporters onboard (while managing both Clintons without letting them steal the show); and pull off a closing night seen by more than 75,000 people at Denver's Invesco field as well as a record-breaking 42.4 million viewers at home, according to Nielsen and PBS. (That record was broken by John McCain, whose speech pulled a half million more viewers one week later.)
While the Democrats offered their share of attacks on the McCain campaign, speech after speech came back to issues, comparing the product attributes of Team Obama to those of Team McCain.
GOP's branding effort
But as McCain campaign manager Rick Davis told The Washington Post, "this election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." The biggest problem for Republicans heading into their convention was an "enthusiasm gap," a sense that party loyalists were voting for Mr. McCain but that the GOP wasn't exactly energized. The Republicans, in other words, needed a branding effort.
And Sarah Palin provided that. With that unorthodox pick, Mr. McCain re-established his "maverick" brand and signaled that he intended to co-opt Barack Obama's "change" message.
After two nights of lower ratings for the Republicans, a change was needed. Ms. Palin's Wednesday-night speech pulled a total of 41.1 million viewers, far surpassing Mr. Biden's and falling just short of Mr. Obama's.
While Ms. Palin mentioned some of Mr. Obama's stances, much of her speech attacked not his issue positions but his background, his qualification for office and the throng of people he attracts. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities," she said in a slap at Mr. Obama's background as an organizer. "I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening," she said.
In his acceptance speech, Mr. McCain mentioned policy differences but highlighted his record as a maverick and his background as a war hero and instigator of change, and said he would reform Washington.
"Undoubtedly, Sarah Palin's aw-shucks sense of humor, mothering warmth and tough-as-nails-if-you-cross-me attitude gave the average American something that has been missing for a long time in politics: heart," said Brian Donahue, senior VP of Jamestown Associates, a GOP ad shop.
Dems see issues
But at this point the Obama campaign isn't portraying the fight as about heart. It sees a president so unpopular he didn't even attend the final GOP convention of his term; unemployment setting five-year records; and voters worried about the economy, gas prices, loss of homes and health care. And it doesn't see Mr. McCain as an agent of change but as an agent of continuing the eight years of Republican White House leadership.
"The choice in this election is clear," Mr. Biden told the Democratic convention. "These times require more than a good soldier; they require a wise leader, a leader who can deliver change -- the change everybody knows we need."
He proceeded to list some of the changes needed point by point, as did others at the convention, including Mr. Obama himself.
Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, told Ad Age in an e-mail: "Barack Obama has been very specific on the issues the American people care about and how he will bring the change we need. ... Meanwhile, McCain's campaign manager said this week that 'issues don't matter' and the McCain-Palin ticket has made it clear they would keep the failed Bush policies in place."
"The issue now is whether a man who has spent 26 years in Washington and who offers the same economic policies as George Bush can convince America that he is the change we need," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic consultant and principal at Issues and Images.
Product is off the shelf
But brand experts caution against that. Bill Hillsman, chief creative officer of North Woods Advertising, said, "This notion about McCain as being an extension of a third Bush term is strategically wrong, because independents already know that [McCain] is not George W. Bush. He's run against George W. Bush. ... The job that has to be done for Obama to win ... is to convince independents that this John McCain is a hell of a lot different from the John McCain in 2000."
John Quelch, senior associate dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and author of "Greater Good," agreed. "It's a huge mistake for the Democrats to run against Bush as opposed to running against McCain. It's like competing against a brand your competition has already announced it's pulling off the market."