Brands as Candidates

Mike Shannon    Flag2 Thumb

The idea that presidential candidates need to be developed, managed, and marketed as brands is now conventional wisdom among both political and corporate strategists.  And for good reason.  Recent winning presidential efforts have applied the Candidates as Brands mindset with great success, importing valuable corporate marketing strategies, techniques, and talent into their campaigns.

Consider some of the results – Reagan’s values map and Tuesday Team (made up of all-star Mad Men); Clinton’s lifestyle segmentations (think Soccer Moms); Bush’s media buying andMicroTargeting (borrowed from direct marketing); and Obama’s iconography and social networking platform (overseen by a Facebook founder).  Each has taken its place in political lore and best practices.  And each was partly made possible by thinking of candidates as brands.

As another presidential election season begins, campaign strategists will, without a doubt, be keenly focused on developing their own candidates’ brands, all the while looking to the corporate world for inspiration and ideas.

Up until now, inspiration and ideas have largely traveled down a one-way street – from brand marketers to political campaigns.  

However, we think it is time to make it a two-way thoroughfare by turning the Candidates as Brands mindset on its head – i.e., corporate strategists can benefit from systematically applying a Brands as Candidates lens to their marketing and communications.

The time is right because technological, societal, and economic shifts have radically altered the environment in which businesses operate and communicate, creating an environment some commentators and academics have called an “information democracy.”  

In this environment, which looks and feels a lot like a presidential campaign, companies and their brands face four broad challenges – a loss of control, increased scrutiny, changing consumers, and fiercer competition.

The most acute challenge facing companies is a loss of control over its brand and message.  As a result of increasingly fragmented and connected media, consumers, like voters, get information how they want, when they want it and from whom they want it.  And it often is from each other.  We live in a world where everyone has access to a modern printing press (e.g. blogs) and anyone can be a producer and distributor (e.g. YouTube).  A world in which 25% of search results for the world’s 20 largest brands are links to user-generated content[i] and an employee can post a video on YouTube and create a crisis (e.g. Domino’s).   In this world, the power of paid media has declined, the time horizon of events has been compressed, and companies – like presidential candidates – can no longer say one thing in DC, another on Wall Street, and something else on the retail shelf.

This leads to the second challenge – increased scrutiny.  Presidential candidates go through an intense “vetting” process, in which their personal and professional lives are made public.  Now companies are dealing with a similar challenge, as activists, journalists and other stakeholders can easily access, analyze and publicize corporate information.  As GolinHarris’ Fred Cook has said, for companies “there are no secrets in this brave new world[ii].”   This increased scrutiny is happening in an atmosphere in which companies – especially big ones – are expected to be more transparent in their dealings and more active in promoting social good.  For example, a recent worldwide study by Edelman found that a majority believe all stakeholders – including the media, the government and the general public – should be equally important to a CEO’s decision process[iii].

Brand marketers are also dealing with a changing consumer, across three critical dimensions.  First, as a result of the recession, consumers are re-thinking loyalty and switching brands at high rates (almost half of Americans are considering brands they haven’t considered before according to one recent study[iv]).  Second, consumers are increasingly overwhelmed and disoriented by message overload and product proliferation (e.g., 87,000 different drink combinations at Starbucks).  And third – and most important – consumers increasingly want to engage with their favorite brands not just as buyers, but as advocates and thought partners.  For instance, an IBM study found that almost 8 in 10 consumers say they “are likely to co-create—helping retailers develop new products and services that they prefer[v].”  Shifting loyalties, message overload, and intense engagement all characterize today’s voting public.

Finally, in the midst of these first three challenges, companies are facing and engaging in fiercer competition.  With growth being flat in so many categories, many companies are in a market share war.  And that has led to a spike in attack ads (benignly called contrast ads in political parlance and comparative ads in the business lexicon).  From mobile (Verizon vs. AT&T) to computers (Apple vs. Microsoft) to coffee (Dunkin Donuts vs. Starbucks) to cars (Audi vs. Mercedes-Benz), the airwaves have been cluttered with attack spots, including during this year’s Super Bowl.  Of course, the Super Bowl of the attack ad is the presidential campaign.

In sum, presidential candidates have, in many ways, been wrestling with and responding to each these four challenges – a loss of control, increased scrutiny, changing consumers (voters), and fiercer competition – for far longer and far better than the business world.   

Thus, we at Vianovo believe corporate strategists can spark innovation and improve decisions by adding the Brands as Candidates lens to their toolkit of strategic frameworks.  We call it shifting into a Brands as Candidates MODE, which stands for Message, Organization, Delivery and Engagement – four dimensions across which to systematically apply the lens.

Shifting into this MODE suggests a multitude of ways a brand might act like a candidate.  Here is a brief sampling…

A brand acting like a candidate is fiercely disciplined in its messaging.
Successful presidential candidates and campaigns are known for delivering clear, memorable and consistent messages.  They recognize that in today’s fragmented, cluttered and connected media environment, saying a lot of things is akin to saying nothing.  They also recognize that mixed messages present grave danger to their authenticity.  A recent example of a high-profile brand that might have avoided damaging missteps with a Brand as Candidate lens is Groupon.  Groupon’s Super Bowl ads, which parodied celebrities’ promotion of social causes, were disconnected from the company’s roots and image.  The backlash was swift, negative coverage persisted, apologies were made, and the ads were pulled.

A brand acting like a candidate will prepare for and monitor attacks and rapidly respond.

Successful presidential candidates and campaigns respond quickly and aggressively to attacks and threats to their reputation.  On the other hand, at many corporations there is a bias to letting attacks, especially via paid media, go unanswered, for fear of drawing attention to it or giving it credence.  We think an antiquated approach in this day and age.  It’s a mindset that led Microsoft to wait more than two years to respond to Apple’s “I’m a PC” assault on their brand.


A brand acting like a candidate will audit their research, redesign their processes, and create visibility and sharing mechanisms.

In a presidential campaign, the research function is by definition centralized, as there is only one product – the candidate.  On the other hand, a corporation’s market research, by necessity, is usually decentralized. Different groups – from public affairs to advertising to product design to customer loyalty – have research authority and budgets.  As a result of this fragmentation, few companies know how much they are spending on market research. Efforts are duplicated, vendors overpaid, and low-value “legacy” surveys abound.  Most important, research is often unshared, under-analyzed and unseen by senior executives.


A brand acting like a candidate will design its paid media to affect the online and offline conversations

The most memorable and talked-about ads of the past two presidential campaigns actually had relatively low media spends behind them (Windsurfing, Swift Boats and Celeb).  What they did have were clear (and provocative) messages and imagery that generated thousands of online and offline conversations.  Presidential strategists have begun to recognize that the message and execution of an ad has become much more important that the size of the media buy.  Of course, savvy corporate strategists know this, too (but it’s easy to forget), and many, such as Old Spice, have had great success in releasing web-only videos (similar to what the Bush campaign did in 2004).


A brand acting like a candidate will engage its consumers like presidential candidates engage voters.  

Successful presidential candidates and campaigns are brilliant at engaging with their supporters in very personal ways and empowering them to serve as advocates and participants. Rallies, special ad previews, campaign collateral, and candidate home visits, to name a few tools, are all oriented at firing up the base and creating loyalty.  In 2004, the Bush campaign created a Team Leader’s program that rewarded supporters for completing certain grassroots activities, such as hosting house parties.  In 2008, the Obama campaign co-opted the now-iconic Hope poster created by one of its supporters.  On the corporate side, Nike recently employed what might be characterized as an “insurgent” candidate strategy to engage its base and generate conversation.  Locked out of the World Cup (Adidas being the official sponsor), Nike created the “Write the Future” campaign, providing Facebook fans a special preview of a new ad and allowing them to then submit their own headlines to be displayed on a building in Johannesburg.  As a result, Nike doubled its Facebook followers and enjoyed twice the online buzz around the World Cup than Adidas.

In closing, to borrow from President Lincoln, the changing landscape requires brands to think anew and act anew - and thinking and acting like a presidential candidate is a valuable way to navigate these stormy times.  In the coming months, we will be writing more on this topic and working with clients to apply it to their brands.   And as always, we welcome your viewpoint on our Viewpoint.

To read this Viewpoint in PDF, click here.