Issue: A surprising choice in the Democratic primaries
Commentary by: David Vinjamuri
Political campaigns are usually the stuff of brand managers’ nightmares. The advertising is coarse, unsubtle and unconvincing. It argues with consumers. The media plans are absurd, bombarding consumers with spots so many times that they are as likely to revolt as be convinced.
In this year’s Democratic primary, however, a strange thing is happening: the candidates have constructed two very clear brand paradigms.
While the window dressing of the campaigns may have you believe that the campaign is about experience vs. youth (for Clinton) or change versus the status quo (for Obama), decoding the brand paradigms suggest that the real struggle is even older and more familiar for brand strategists.
It turns out that this primary is really about management versus leadership.
Why do we say this? Decoding the language Sen. Clinton uses to speak about her candidacy and the language of her advertising yields a classic trove of pro-management imagery. Clinton values experience, understands the mechanisms of power, knows the people who actually get things done. She promises to be ‘hands on,’ surrounds herself with party elders and speaks of herself as the safe choice. She unfailingly uses the first person “I” when speaking about her campaign – indicating she will take personal responsibility for the results and values accountability highly.
Sen. Obama speaks of the urgent need for political transformation and uses the language of movements rather than management. He suggests that creating a post-partisan administration and transcending “blue versus red state” mentalities is more important even than specific policy objectives. In spite of repeated attacks from his opposition, he continues to speak more about opportunity and to use his media to motivate rather than to specify. Sen. Obama rarely uses “I” and almost always uses the second person “we” to speak of his campaign as a movement.
This makes for a surprisingly substantive choice for voters. It’s not just flash and posturing – the two candidates are presenting two real alternatives to the question of how executive power is wielded. And they are using classic brand paradigms to do it.
Senator Clinton presents a rational argument for competent management being the most important quality for the next leader. She points to this as the greatest weakness in the current administration (failure to plan for the occupation of Iraq, poor follow-through in Afghanistan, mismanagement of disaster relief after Katrina, etc.). She suggests that only a great manager will be able to deal with the war on terrorism and work health care reform through Congress.
Senator Obama tells us that leadership rather than management will be necessary characteristic of the next President. While bad management may have gotten us mired in Iraq, only leadership will extract us. Rather than a President who can move the levers of power he suggests that we need a President who can inspire others to make fundamental changes.
These competing brand paradigms give us a stark, pragmatic choice. In Senator Clinton’s vision, the best way to avoid a terrorist plot being hatched in Munich, but bound for the United States is to have a President who can get the FBI and CIA to share intelligence, work smoothly with the German government and one who has put the right capabilities into place to stop the plot once uncovered.
Senator Obama suggests that changing the underlying mistrust of the United States in the eyes of foreign nationals (through visionary leadership) would more effectively foil the same plot by making the German Police more likely to trust their U.S. counterparts and share intelligence and also make ordinary citizens of both countries less fearful to cooperate if they were themselves Muslim.
These are two valid arguments and both need to be considered. And – although politics is not the usual place to find it – a good example of successful brand positioning.