Wednesday, January 26, 2011

SOTU Part 2: Politics and Brands

First, thanks for the feedback on my last post about Obama's reelection prospects. For those of you who thought I might be over-thinking it a bit, I refer you to Daniel Henninger's latest, who basically says, "Obama is putting a moderate frosting on the same big government cake." That could well be true! But I think he wants to appease the center and get re-elected, and my point was that the Tea Party will ensure that symbolic gestures and half measures don't get much traction, so to get anything done he will have to make substantial concessions to the Republicans.

Underlying that post was some thinking about brands which I wanted to make explicit. Right now Obama is virtually synonymous with the liberal brand. (Nancy Pelosi could have staked a claim while she was speaker, but she's faded from the picture rapidly in the last few months.) Another way to put it is that Obama has a monopoly on the liberal market: if you're a liberal who wants to 'buy' a different option, where do you turn right now? Even Keith Olbermann is off the air. And like all monopolies, the Obama brand has gotten a little flabby. Is he the bipartisan uniter? The new Kennedy? The racial healer? The smartest guy in the room? The professorial President? The empirical pragmatist? All of these ideas have been floated in the past year or so as the Obama brand, but none of them really define him. Which is good for him to the extent it means he can redefine himself (again, as I argued he's doing in my last post. But it is bad for him to the extent that he can't rally the public behind his brand.

In contrast, I think the competition between the "Standard Right" Republicans and the Tea Party helps them to define their brands. Both groups want to control the more conservative side of the political spectrum. But, as you could see from Paul Ryan's speech last night, the Standard Right are trying to be the responsible adults who have learned from the past and are ready to fix America's problems, especially it's deficit crisis. And while the Tea Party also wants to take on the debt, their brand is much more about restoring America's founding vision and throwing out the 'impure' elements that have corrupted the country.

To the extent that this isn't just rambling, here's the point: the Republican 'brands' have similar goals, but they are quite distinct in tone and values, and they are competing for the same audience. Obama, meanwhile, as no competition for his audience. The competition, I think, will force Republicans to evolve and improve their thinking and their brands more rapidly, and I think ultimately help them succeed in the marketplace of ideas.

So the lesson for marketers: embrace competition, and use it to help you define who your audience is and why they should care about your brand more than the competitors.

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