As a Canadian, I have watched the presidential campaign in the United States with a detached fascination. As the campaign has progressed, I’ve become increasingly numbed and disappointed, and not just by the torrent of disingenuous and shrill attack campaign ads. What’s even more interesting – as a student of marketing and PR – is how the candidates have ignored some of the basic rules of communication – in particular the core tenets of marketing. If the candidates were being judged as brands competing in the marketplace – they would get very mixed reviews. Let’s review how they rank against some key elements of successful branding.

  • Focus: One of the central tenets of effective branding is having a clear, cogent brand identity. If customers (or voters) don’t have a clear sense of what you stand for, you have a serious problem. I would argue both candidates have muddled their identity and messages to the point where most voters are unclear what they really believe and what they stand for. Take McCain as an example. He starts the year as a renegade maverick who proudly bucks most of the Republican establishment. In the past few months, he has predictably softened his message on key issues and taken on the mantra as the Straight Talk Express. More recently, shaken by the implosion of the financial markets, he has apparently turned his back on decades of traditional Republican dogma about small government and free markets and remade himself a deathbed convert to regulation and Wall Street bashing. His focus on key issues has gone through a similar windmill depending on the vagaries of the campaign. Now he has belatedly joined Obama as the candidate for change and positioned himself as the real outsider. Whatever your political views on these twists and turns, it’s likely unclear to many what McCain stands for anymore…beyond perhaps getting elected. It doesn’t help, of course, that McCain’s opponent Obama is doing all he can to attack McCain’s positioning (see friend of George Bush ads) and protect his own turf.
  • Differentiation: As per the above, while both candidates are striving to carve out their distinctive positions (and inherent advantages as candidates) their drifting positions have likely made their pitches more diffuse and confusing.  Here’s a test: who is running as the most credible change agent, Washington outsider and somebody who no allegiance to lobbyists? Yes…both of them. This one should be easy given the inherent polarization of politics and electoral campaigns, but aside from splits on a few fundamental issues the candidates are stepping on the same platform.  
  • Credibility: This is a tough one given the inevitable histrionics and exaggeration of political campaigns, but even by those low standards of probity I would suggest the aggressively partisan advertising – which is usually quickly debunked by most impartial fact-checkers – seriously erodes the credibility of both candidates. It’s never a good thing when voters (or customers) expect most of what you say to be only distantly related to the truth.
  • Consistency: See comments above. Even the most ardent political junkie would be hard pressed to keep track of the protean positions of the two candidates. It’s fine to adjust your position on key issues, but another thing altogether to do so for political expediency. The only thing that is consistent is the reactive and poll-driven messaging. I would also give Obama some credit for being consistent about his campaign theme and core messages – despite pressure from insiders to change it when the polls dip.
  • Relevance: Most brand stewards stive to get to know their customers and respond to their desires and aspirations so they’ll buy your products or services. In politics, you use the same method to get their votes rather than their money. Given the amount of polling involved in this campaign, it’s clear the campaigns are working hard to be relevant to the voters…all the way down to specific voter segments or even neighborhoods. I’d have to give them decent marks on this one – in fact this may be one area where marketing has something to learn from politics.
  • Third-party (customer) endorsement: Though the parties and candidates have thousand of passionate fans, it’s much harder to find impartial supporters who are not partisan or dogmatic. It does appear Obama has generated genuine enthusiasm among many who have not traditionally voted, so give him higher marks for creating buzz outside the traditional Democratic circles.
  • Positive word-of-mouth: See point above. Plenty of noise and ardent cheer-leading but it’s not clear how much is real or will last beyond the election.   
  • Compelling advertising: Though many pundits claim critical campaign advertising is effective it’s clear that most of the advertising we’ve seen in this campaign has been formulaic and largely lacking in creativity and imagination. You know the type: highly critical attack ads that stick closely to the tried-and-true formula of dramatic banner headlines and splashy visuals. No subtlety here. Ads that break the monotony (and cacophony) are very rare…I can’t honestly recall one that stuck out. And there lies a major flaw of these campaigns – they are hopelessly predictable. Even if they work and some of the mud sticks – which is debatable – I firmly believe they ultimately erode the reputation and credibility of the candidates rather than enhance it. 

Of course, unlike the real world one of these candidates will end up making the sale – and getting elected – no matter what they do. That’s lucky for them, because if they were in an open marketplace they may not close the deal.