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Branding and the upcoming U.S. presidential election

The News & Observer (January 8, 2008) recently published a negative article about branding in the political arena, “Choosy voters choose to go beyond branding.” It’s about the “fusion of ‘branding’ and politics that characterizes not only the way candidates and consultants pitch campaigns to the public, but also the way many of us now see public life.” The author calls this fusion “branditics.”

The author argues that “branditics” reduces the complexity of politics to simplistic messages, and says “Brands work better in grocery stores than in the White House.”

The writer understands branding well: It is indeed “the process of taking something on a shelf or in an office park and transforming it into an emotional experience that pulls us in, makes us believe, inspires us to buy. A strong brand captures, compresses and conveys an organization's values, the promise of its products and the guarantee of a consistent customer experience.”

However, he does not believe that potential presidents should be sold like “cans of Coke.” He does not believe that we should be content with oversimplified labels such as “security” for Giuliani, “competency” for Clinton, “faith” for Huckabee, or “hope” for Obama.

The problem, he says, is that branding closes off choices for the candidates whereas they need “room to maneuver,” to be flexible.

I have to disagree with this author. I think the candidates, particularly Obama, Clinton, and Giuliani, are doing a great job branding themselves for public consumption. In an election where it is sometimes hard to tell apart the candidates’ positions on complex issues, we need a shortcut that helps us define who we may be voting for. Branding doesn’t close off choices for the candidates, it merely encapsulates exactly who they are, what they value, what they promise to the American people, and how they will make that experience consistent.

Related to this is the question of “rebranding America”—which candidate will be the best at giving the U.S. the image makeover many feel it needs? Some feel that it is Obama, because of his race—“A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy”—they believe that America needs a nonwhite president to convey the message that we are not Anglo-elitists bent on dominating the world. I think that is certainly a possibility. A Clinton presidency would, to me, have a similar effect—in electing a female we would be sending a strong message about our beliefs in equality and diversity and those beliefs are far-reaching. Would electing Giuliani be good for the U.S. brand? Probably not—right now we need to project an image of world diplomacy, not stubbornness and being closed off to other nations and other views. How about McCain? I say, eh—I don’t get much of a brand image there, other than that he’s sort of a standard Republican, whatever that means. And in my view none of the other candidates really stand much of a chance right now…if they do at some later time then I’ll weigh in on their brand image.

Any way you look at it, branding is really critical right now in the U.S. elections. It’s an overall positive for the voter, who gets to make more meaningful choices, and it’s a way to hold candidates accountable to some philosophy or value system that they will have to stick with. It is further a way to help the American voter decide what kind of image they want to project in the world as a nation, and now is a critical time for that kind of decision to take place.

Country branding – an instructive article on Brand Kenya

Nairobi’s Business Daily (8 January 2008) carried an excellent opinion piece on what Kenya needs to do to build a country brand, especially in the face of the current instability. “Whereas we had reached a point where Kenya was seen as a case study in political tranquility and economic stability, we are now being showcased in the international media as a war-torn economic time bomb,” writes the author, the CEO of Interbrand Sampson East Africa. “One solution to counter this is to create a strong country brand.”

According to the writer, a country brand offers the following key benefits, and I strongly agree:

  1. Improves a nation’s image in general (obviously)
  2. Aligns citizen’s way of thinking about the country “and speeds up healing and reconciliation”… “builds up patriotism and pride.”
  3. Positions a nation “way above its peers”…offers a “competitive edge” as countries “compete…for tourism, inward investment and export sales.” (Maybe this is three separate benefits?) Specifically, it “gives weight to the ‘made in’ label because it will positively aid the sale of products in foreign markets.”

How do you develop a country brand? The writer notes that you need:

1. The involvement of “government, business, the arts, education and importantly the media.” (I wonder how a country can involve the media if the media’s role is to maintain impartiality and be above notions like branding. The media might report on branding, but how would they be a part of it?)

2. “To find out how your country is perceived both internally by citizens and externally by people abroad who you want to influence.” (“You should also consult with opinion leaders…and compare their views.”) This step cannot be underestimated. It is the critical marketing research piece that every brand requires in order to be successful.

The resulting “brand idea and positioning…positively and clearly differentiates the country from any other.”

This “enables the development of messaging to the various audiences previously identified.”

The writer goes on to state that “the most difficult part of country branding is on the ground roll out. You should work out a programme to make the strategy tangible through improvement projects.” (I’m not sure I understand that part. What kind of improvement projects? How does this relate to the brand?)

The author further writes that it is challenging to create a collaborative system to implement the brand strategy (across government, business, the media, etc.), “without making it look too governmental, because people will instinctively avoid working with it.” (My question is, why will people not want to work with the government on a brand strategy for the country? This does not make intuitive sense to me.)

The author states that although executing the strategy takes time, the important thing is to “be consistent, building an integrated picture and always backing it with quality.” This should be unaffected by what is going on politically. (I am not sure, again, how the strategy is executed unless by traditional means—advertising, marketing promotions, online awareness-building, etc.)

Overall I found this article very useful and highly instructive—for country branding or any other kind of branding, for that matter. The key equation is: collaboration + research = brand positioning and messaging.

Of course, there is always the question of brand vision—is there a way to circumvent the research process and come up with a vision for the brand that is derived from someone’s personal genius? I think so in theory, although it is risky for an entire country to do that.

Finally, there is the question of execution, which remains murky. How exactly do you implement a brand strategy for a country? Aside from advertising (or maybe the primary tactic is advertising)? I would like to read more in these kinds of articles about specific brand-building approaches, both for country branding and branding in general. I am reading another brand book now and it also suffers from the same murky approach to actual implementation…more on that in a future post.

Why U.S. federal government agencies don’t brand themselves

In an article titled “Treasury's £2.4m on ‘image’,” U.K.’s The Sun newspaper states that England’s “Treasury chiefs have blown £2.4million in a year on image makeovers. The cash was spent on logos, branding and marketing staff to promote the work of the department and its agencies.”

The article notes that the “biggest spender was the shambolic HM Revenue and Customs, notorious for losing the bank details of 25 million people. It lavished £390,000 on seven brand management staff plus £750,000 on a marketing team last year. Chancellor Alistair Darling blew another £130,000 on ‘branding manuals’ for his departments.”

The article goes on in this vein, eventually quoting Tory spokesman Philip Hammond, who said: “It beggars belief that departments that are supposed to be responsible for the public purse are lavishing millions on self-promotion.”

This kind of story, in a nutshell, could be a key reason why U.S. federal government agencies don’t brand themselves. They could be concerned that the public will view money spent on branding as wasteful frippery rather than serving the taxpayers’ interests.

The job of a brand is to create an emotional connection between an organization and its (external and internal) customers. In doing so, the brand improves the relationship between agencies and their public stakeholders and unifies employees to perform the mission. Branding, in short, makes organizations function better. It is the furthest thing possible from waste (unless, of course, it is done badly, incoherently, inconsistently, or inauthentically). Yet the media is ready to pounce on any dollar spent that is not purely operational—that does not go directly toward the mission.

I ask you, where would agencies be without other mission support areas, like information technology, human resources, finance? The answer: Nowhere, and everybody knows it. Agencies need mission support in order to function. The same is true of branding. Branding, and its sister function marketing, exists in order to make operations palatable to the public, to increase public consumption of products and services, and even to increase the likelihood that the public will pay attention to the informational messages that the agency is sending.

More than that, agencies have public affairs staffs whose job it is to disseminate key information to the public. Their jobs would be made immeasurably easier if their information were associated with a powerful brand, a brand that people paid attention to. How many U.S. federal agencies can you name, off the top of your head?

In short, U.S. public agencies need a brand. And it is up to agencies’ public affairs staff to make the case for branding both within and outside the agency as necessary. The problem is, branding is a “soft discipline,” so it is difficult to make a numbers-based business case—you can’t quantify exactly how much the relationship between the agency and the public will be improved, for example, or predict how much public consumption of agency products and services will go up after the brand has been instituted. I know that Interbrand and perhaps Young & Rubicam (through its Brand Asset Valuator) can quantify the value of a brand of a publicly held, commercial company, but no comparable measures exist for the value of a brand to a public agency.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much research in this area that I am aware of. It would be helpful if there were.

Until such best practice research arrives on the scene, perhaps in the form of a ground-breaking book on federal agency branding, we public affairs professionals working in government can wait for the winds of enlightenment to spring up and carry us to the promised land. But right now, with the lack of information/education available on the taxpayer benefits associated with branding, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

McDonald's goes after Starbucks, Starbucks freaks out

Today’s Wall Street Journal (January 7, 2008) reports that McDonald’s is looking Starbucks square in the eye and going after its core customer.

“Starting this year, the company's nearly 14,000 U.S. locations will install coffee bars with ‘baristas’ serving cappuccinos, lattes, mochas and the Frappe, similar to Starbucks' ice-blended Frappuccino.”

Greedy McDonald’s forecasts $1 billion in annual sales from the program.

The move is a good sign and a bad sign for Starbucks. It’s a good sign in that it recognizes just how mainstream “upscale coffee” has become—it validates Starbucks’ position as a key purveyor of that type of drink.

It’s bad for Starbucks for the very same reason—it shows how commoditized the Starbucks experience is—the very thing that Starbucks chairman (now CEO) Howard Schultz warned about in his famous leaked memo of February 2007.

It is sort of shocking that things have gotten to this point. Starbucks was supposed to be the polar opposite of a commodity purveyor of food like McDonald’s. But guess what? They added food to the menu as well as drive-through windows to achieve growth, and they became, in the end, somewhat McDonald’s-like.

Starbucks is very worried about this encroachment from a potential competitor—so much so that the company just announced it is bringing back Howard Schultz to run the company as CEO. Schultz is going to lead “a major restructuring initiative” that includes a series of initiatives like closing poorly-performing stores, new products, new store designs, and better training for its baristas.

I can understand that Starbucks is concerned. But I will bet you, dollars to donuts, that McDonald’s will never encroach on the true Starbucks consumer. The brand’s “immune system” (to quote former Coca-Cola Chief Marketing Officer Sergio Zyman) won’t allow it. Sure, if you want a syrupy, cheap latte you will be able to get one at Mickey D’s. But the Golden Arches cannot imitate the ambience of Starbucks—which still exists, no matter what anybody says or how supposedly commoditized the chain has become.

At the very worst, says the Journal, “the new coffee program is a risky bet for McDonald’s.” Why? “It could slow down operations and alienate customers who come to McDonald's for cheap, simple fare rather than theatrics. Franchisees say that many of their customers don't know what a latte is.”

I, for one, am absolutely disgusted at the lengths McDonald’s will go to to take over the eating experience of every American. Is there nothing sacred anymore? Starbucks, for all its failings, is still that special “third place” and I would never go to McDonald’s to replicate it.

At the same time, I can understand McDonald’s motivations. Like any brand hungry for growth, it sees an expansion opportunity. However, the McD’s brand does not have "permission" to expand into the Starbucks space. If I were Starbucks, I would not be terribly worried about it. In fact, I might view it, if anything, as a way to expand my own market. And Schultz has said as much. As the Journal article notes:

“Mr. Schultz has said that new competition actually helps Starbucks by expanding the specialty-coffee category. ‘Those consumers over time are going to trade up,’ he told investors in November. ‘They're going to trade up because they are not going to be satisfied with the commoditized experience or the flavor.’ He has emphasized that Starbucks's baristas, who are instructed to memorize customers' drink orders and make genuine conversation with patrons, will continue to set the chain apart.”

At the same time, Starbucks needs to see this as a major warning signal. As I have said before, it is time to reinvent the brand—now. Starbucks should consider killing its own brand and resurrecting it as something even better—the ultimate, uncopyable “third space” that is suited for the way we live now. There is no growth left for Starbucks as it stands anymore—it has saturated the market. It is time to do something daring, different, and better—astounding and delighting the millions (billions?) of dedicated Starbucks fans out there who are rooting for the brand to survive and succeed.