Thursday, May 3, 2012

Brand Games

Nabisco announced this week that the Fig Newton will now be known as Newtons, as they were when introduced in 1891.  The packaging now has pictures of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries to show that the Newton isn’t just made of figs.  The soft and chewy snacks are being targeted at adults looking for a healthy alternative to cookies.  Extensive consumer research shows that the baby boom generation is looking for in-between meal substitutes, and Newtons will now be displayed in produce sections because of its fruit composition.  We live in the age of branding where the target audience responds when there is a consistent message between what is being promoted and what is actually being delivered.
In 1982 Extra-strength Tylenol was deliberately contaminated with cyanide and 32 people died.  In what is now a textbook crisis response the company pulled 31 million bottles from shelves at a cost of $100 million.  10 weeks later the company introduced the first-ever tamper-proof packaging and the company retained 100% of its pre-crisis market share.  They were able to do so because the response of withdrawing its product and introducing the triple-sealed safety container was consistent with taking care of people, what the core product is intended to do.

In 2008 Fast Company published an extensive piece “The Brand Called Obama” which showed the meticulous transformation of a State Senator to leading Presidential contender thanks to a carefully calibrated marketing and branding plan.  “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we Can” were brand slogans that propelled Barak Obama into the White House.  The candidate’s speeches, television commercials and media hype were all aligned around these themes.  The country responded to the message and elected the first term Senator to the nation’s highest office.

Upon entering the Presidency Mario Cuomo’s quote  proved to be accurate:  “Your campaign in poetry.  You govern in prose.”  The reality of governance by compromise, the Republican strategy of near universal opposition to anything the President proposed along with the on-the-job learning curve has resulted in the Obama brand being tainted.  His approval ratings show a steady decline in positive opinions and a rise in negative feelings.  This is not unexpected or new to the Presidency.  The lack of enthusiasm came after a number of legislative battles. 
The drop in support for the President is intimately linked to the promise of change not being delivered in a way that the electorate feels it was promised.  President Reagan’s “Morning in America” promise resonated in the 1984 election and bolstered his brand because it framed the successes of his first term against the difficulties of the Carter years.
President Obama’s re-election team announced this week the tagline “Forward” to replace “Change” for the 2012 election.  It is an astute choice.  It both sends the message that the President is focused on the future and wants to keep propelling his 2008 promises onward while not so subtly framing the opposition as “Backward” and reminding people of the messes he inherited. 
The slogan is very effective at communicating the President’s message, which is distinct from his record.  Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s “Believe in America” tagline is less effective because (thus far) the candidate hasn’t framed his messaging to resonate with the slogan and his track record isn't aligned with the catch phrase.  None of this, of course, has to do with actually policy or the ability of which man can deliver on their promise.
Nearly a billion dollars will be spent convincing voters that the actions of the candidate are consistent with what actions they will take after the election.  Given that the Executive branch is just a third of a very divided government there will be a further disconnect between brand message and accomplishment.  The more that these slogan don't align with practial results in people's lives, the more it becomes a marketing gambit.  That’s the joy and the frustration of democracy and why the whole branding effort is silly.

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