The Most Interesting Branding Story Is in Politics

A Case Study in 'Product' vs. 'Brand'

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I was getting my hair cut the other day and the salon erupted in an all-out political brawl between the Clinton and Obama camps.

"We're not electing a buddy, we're electing the President," said Jimmy, scissors paused half-open in exasperation. "She has the experience."

In the next chair, a client whose head was covered in foil leaves said defiantly: "But he is different. I don't care about experience. I just like him."

For me, this salon snapshot confirmed what we've all been feeling at a gut level: the most interesting branding story is happening in politics, not marketing.

It's a good old-fashioned case study in better product vs. better brand.

Hillary Clinton has spent the last six years crafting the better product story. She's gotten on the right committees, worked across party lines, appeared tough and professional. Nine months ago, Hillary was the one to get excited about.

But along came another, very similar product: Barack Obama. Both feature top-notch pedigrees (she from Wellesley, he from Harvard), gritty devotion to the underdog (lawyering for children's rights vs. lawyering for civil rights), a move to the local establishment of state politics (well, here Barack has the advantage, but no one seems to care), eventual debut to the big stage, national politics (here, Hillary has undoubtedly had more experience no matter how you count it, but it's no comparison to McCain's eons there), and iconic moment ("Stand by your man" vs. the 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic convention).

The difference is Barack seems to have created a better brand. Take a pretty good product and add a layer of hope and empowerment, and you've created evangelists, rather than supporters. You've created a movement, not just a product.

While Barack has become the "Just Do It" of the race, Hillary has been repositioned as the "sensible shoes" of the race -- tried and true, will get the job done, and a sadly safe choice.

Jimmy notwithstanding, it's driving Hillary supporters insane.

Isn't this what we talk about in every new-business meeting? Isn't this exactly what Nike knows, what Virgin knows, what JetBlue knows, what Starbucks knows. Isn't this what we can do for your brand?

Why when it comes to politics is inspiration something to be wary of? In the real world, does inspiration somehow devalue all those rational product points?

I think the electoral process works pretty much like the shopping process: You've got one or two things that you really require. Everything else in the way of rational product points is really secondary. You're left standing in front of that display (or punch card) while making a decision about what story is the most compelling to you.

New York, by last count a stalwart Hillary market, is full of ad people. How have we, the experts, let her become sensible shoes? (And the ultimate question, how do sensible shoes stack up versus vintage shoes?)

True, there is a whole country out there full of sensible-shoe types. In their eyes, those flashy sneakers are just what all the kids are wearing. But when they actually venture to try on a pair, even the most sensible of sensible-shoe people may just get a glint in the eye and be inspired to jog a few steps.

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Jennifer Patterson, planning director, La Comunidad
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