Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sarah Palin, Considered As A Political Brand

Photo via Wikipedia

remember when they said Hillary Clinton was a "shrew."

And Michele Obama was "angry."

But stereotypes and labels dissolve in the face of reality. We know from lived experience over many years that Hilary Clinton is a gifted stateswoman. That Michelle Obama is passionately committed to causes that lift us all. That the anger is not flimsy but righteous.

Sarah Palin, too, has not allowed sexist putdowns to define her. She is the manifestation of what I studied and wrote about in my dissertation: "cultural feminism." This is the "Legally Blond" model of empowerment --  the embrace of traditional gender qualities. 

(Hillary Clinton embodies liberal feminism, the idea that men and women should be viewed as functionally the same. Michelle Obama, represents radical feminism or the idea that sexism/racism/classism is built into the system and so the system must be fundamentally rebuilt.)

From the perspective of brand, what people remember is what you do. It is your actions accumulated over time. Not what you say, what anyone else says, not what anyone expects. (See graphic)

Palin's speech yesterday at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was an experience that totally captured her brand. (Click here for video.)

Palin actually decried branding in the speech. But she brilliantly positions herself as a unique and relevant alternative to the President and the GOP alike: 

1. Focus

Palin understands that the audience cares about the strength of America as a country, both actual and perceived. About growing and protecting our wealth. About taking care of our families. About standing up for certain values even as we love those who "sin." About defending the weak and defenseless, particularly in the womb. About the right to own a gun to protect yourself against a potentially tyrannical government. About G-d and the right to practice religion. She gets it, she is laser focused on it, she is unapologetic.

2. Strength

She not only criticized the President, but also mocked him - openly. She made him, and the GOP for its weak protestations, seem like a wimp compared with her. I stood there watching and cried at how strong she can off versus how weak and inferior so many women have been taught to be.

3. Women 

Palin is unapologetically female and feminine. She went on the offense and attacked Democrats for treating women like a "cheap date" they buy off with promises of free birth control and big government to protect them and don't worry your pretty little heads about economic policy. On abortion, what about protecting our "little sisters" in the womb? 

All of that works. But here is the problem. As Palin said, she is not into branding as a communications thing. It has to be about substance. And if she is to be a mainstream candidate here are some substantive issues she will need to tackle:

1. The perception that she is an idiot. 

The grasp of the big picture is good. folksy style is good, the pop culture is good, but Palin does not use numbers enough to balance her dramatic style. I don't doubt she has the numbers, but I sense she is not comfortable with them. That would be a problem especially in a debate.

2. The mud-wrestling factor.

By dividing women into camps Palin detracts from the feminist cause. First, there is a kind of unspoken sexual thrill the media gets at putting women against each other as if they are in an X rated show as opposed to a serious political debate. So now it's Palin vs. other female politicians instead of Palin against all politicians without regard to gender.

3. Extremism

To focus on feminism for a minute, there are times when women need big government (sex offender registry, worldwide human trafficking cooperation, stalking) and times when we need a flexible approach (abortion is a personal decision but the state has an interest in protecting life). And equal pay is even more complicated. There is no one size fits all.

To be a viable mainstream candidate, Palin will have to show that she can back her assertions with facts. That she can fit her "Mama Grizzly" worldview into "MSNBC feminism" and make not only peace but synthesis and greater good through the union. She will have to moderate her tendency toward extremism and talk about a more flexible approach to Big Government without seeming wishy-washy.

But her biggest problem in 2016, if she decides to run, will be the Big Message that equally extreme Democrats throw at her. And if I had to guess, I would say that it will be about civil rights, along the lines of racial and sexual equality. 

I am willing to bet that the Democrats will say, sure we screwed up a lot of stuff, but slat least our hearts are in the right place. Are you sure you can trust these Conservatives to do anything more than roll the clock back by a century?

And if Palin and the Democrats can't anticipate and prepare an offensive message on that right now -- one that goes way beyond token representation in the ranks -- any defensive response won't work.

On that score I go back to the idea of coalitions. There are many brilliant conservatives across the spectrum of sex, race, culture and religion. For a Sarah Palin to succeed she would need both backing and connected, layered messaging that speaks to many different identities at once.

When it comes to politics, like anything else, a deep understanding of how branding works -- what it is and what it isn't -- is essential to success.

* All opinions my own. Not an endorsement or non-endorsement of Sarah Palin or any political party or candidate.