Why Brand Obama trounced misbranded Mitt Romney

Al Ries is a marketing consultant who coined the term “positioning” and is the author of such marketing classics (with Jack Trout) as The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing and   Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. He is also the co-founder and chairman of the Atlanta-based consulting firm Ries & Ries with his partner and daughter, Laura Ries. Along with Laura he has written bestsellers like War in the Boardroom and The Origin of Branding. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul and analyses why brand Barack Obama emerged stronger than brand Mitt Romney.
How would you define the brand Barack Obama? What are the three characteristics that you would attribute to him?
Consistent. The three characteristics I would attribute to Barack Obama are (1) Consistency. (2) Consistency, and (3) Consistency. He took office promising “change.” And the major changes he promised include creating jobs, reforming the health-care system and reducing the deficits by increasing taxes on the wealthy. He has never wavered from these three basic principles.
Brand experts talk about a strong story accompanying a brand. What do you think is Obama’s story?
His story is his climb from poverty to a law degree from Harvard, our most-prestigious university. It includes his birth to a Kenyon father and an American mother, one black and one white. He is unique. Very few politicians have a story quite like Barack Obama. One exception is John McCain, who was defeated by Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential elections. John McCain’s story is the five-and-a-half years he spent in Vietnam as a prisoner of war and the torture he endured. This created a tremendous amount of sympathy for him. But he lost the election because he was handicapped by the negative reaction to the eight years of the previous President, George W. Bush.
What are the right things that Obama did to build brand Obama in the run up to the elections?
His entire campaign was built around a single idea and he expressed it with a “two-sided slogan.” A two-sided slogan is like a two-sided knife. It cuts both ways. It says something positive about your brand and something negative about the competition.
Could elaborate on that?
Take “Believe in America,” Mitt Romney’s slogan. It’s a nice thought, but it’s a one-sided slogan. It says something positive about Mitt Romney, but what does it say about his opponent?
That Barack Obama doesn’t believe in America? A country that educated him at Harvard. A country that elected him to the Senate and the Presidency. A country that made him wealthy and world famous. Barack Obama doesn’t believe in America? Highly unlikely.
What does Obama believe in? The number one issue among voters is “jobs,” but he couldn’t claim much progress on this issue because of the economy. His best approach was to plead for more time to “finish the job.” So he used the slogan “Forward.”
And what did that imply?
His “Forward” slogan implied that Republicans want to go backwards to policies that failed in the past. Forward is a great slogan because it cuts both ways. This makes two in a row for Barack Obama. His 2008 slogan, “Change we can believe in,” was also a two-sided slogan. With the Republicans in power, John McCain couldn’t exactly advocate “change,” because that would offend his base. The best he could do would be to imply that he would do the job “better than Bush.”
What are the things that went wrong for Obama?
Nothing. The American economy is in bad shape. Deficits are enormous. The Republicans should have won in an easy election, but their marketing strategy was bad.
Which is the brand that you think comes closest to brand Obama?
Virgin might come close because it’s a brand associated with Richard Branson, a unique individual with many stories.
When it comes to brand names the brand name Obama is fairly different from the usual. How does that work/not work?
What many companies forget is that a brand name should be “unique and different.” The biggest mistake companies make is trying to create a brand name that says something about the product or service they are offering. A typical example is “Seattle’s Best Coffee,” a high-end coffee chain launched in America. But the competitor was Starbucks, a unique and different name unrelated to coffee. Starbucks is a far better name than Seattle’s Best Coffee, which is a generic name. Ask people, What is Seattle’s Best Coffee? And they are likely to say, Starbucks.
Could you give us another example from business to substantiate your point?
Google is a typical example. When you start with a unique name without any specific meaning, you can make the name mean whatever you want it to. Yesterday, Google meant nothing. Today, Google means “search” and it’s become one of the most valuable brands in America. On the stock market today, Google is worth $220.1 billion.
How would you define the brand Mitt Romney? What are the three characteristics that you would attribute to him?
Romney is a “business” leader and the attributes voters attribute to him are all based on his business experience. Businesses should (1) Make money. (2) Reduce expenses. (3) Avoid taxes legally.
What is that made brand Romney attractive to the white American male? And what is it that made him unattractive towards everyone else?
The white American male is focused on becoming a business success. He expects to work hard and be rewarded when his hard work pays off. The white American male resents having to share the rewards of his hard work with the government in the form of higher taxes. Women are more family oriented. They don’t mind sharing with less-fortunate individuals. That’s why many of them voted for Barack Obama.
Which is the brand (or even brands) of a product or a service that you think comes closest to brand Romney? And why?
You could list almost every American corporation from IBM to Microsoft. The general perception is that companies want to increase profits, reduce expenses and find a way to avoid taxes (legally.)
You have always said that marketing and branding are all about focus. So who do you think had more focus Obama or Romney? And why?
Barack Obama was focused on just one thing: “Let me finish the job.” That idea was expressed in his slogan “Forward.” Mitt Romney was focused on attacking Obama for the lack of jobs and the high deficits. All true, of course, but that’s a losing political strategy. A politician needs to first have a “positive” focus. I think Mitt Romney should have focused on his business experience and then used a slogan like “Let’s run the government like a business.”
I was reading somewhere that both Obama and Romney employed a technique called brand hijacking in the elections. People who type one candidate’s name into Google’s search box in some markets have seen ads for his opponent. A search for “Barack Obama,” for instance, has yielded ads for Romney, while entering “Mitt Romney” has resulted in ads for Obama. Romney has used a similar tactic on Facebook. How does that help? Would you advocate something like that in the future?
I would not advocate something like this. While it might be effective with some people, it might turn off others.
What are the branding mistakes that Romney make? How difficult was it to beat an incumbent President who was struggling with the economy and most of everything else?
Mitt Romney spent most of his time attacking Barack Obama. That’s the wrong strategy. What a politician needs to do is to offer a positive concept first (business experience) and then point out that his or her opponent lacks this concept. (Barack Obama has never worked in the private sector). It should have been easy to beat an incumbent President with his track record.
I was reading an article on Fast Company and it said “politics, after all, is about marketing — about projecting and selling an image, stoking aspirations, moving people to identify, evangelize, and consume.” Would you agree with something like that and why?
Absolutely. It’s all about perceptions, not reality. That’s what marketing is all about, creating positive perceptions in the minds of consumers.
What are the branding lessons that companies can learn from Obama’s successful campaign? 
Years ago, Bill Clinton became famous for running a campaign which his consultants dubbed:  “It’s the economy, Stupid.” Today, a company should adopt something similar. It’s what I call the KISS approach. “Keep it simple, Stupid.”
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on November 8, 2012. http://www.firstpost.com/world/why-brand-obama-trounced-misbranded-mitt-romney-518734.html
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])