Brand building: Candidates vs. Corporations
Regular readers of this blog may remember that we participated in a fun competition over the summer put on by PR Week. In the "best PR blog" contest, we made to the final eight out of 32. One of the great things to come out of it, however, was an opportunity to get to know a lot of great PR bloggers, some of whom I had not been aware of. One of them, Ed Moed of Peppercom in New York, suggested to this group to form a community by blogging on common topics on a regular basis. We eagerly agreed to participate.
The first, very timely topic is on how the presidential candidates' approach to brand building compares to how companies approach it. I'm a little late to the thread, as Ed explored the Obama brand and the resources behind it, his colleague Sam Ford looked the "Real America" branding pushed by the GOP, Todd Defren wrote about Obama's brand builder David Plouffe, and Frank X. Shaw asserted that political brands are "brittle." Great posts, all!
I'd like to tackle the topic a little more literally by looking in particular at one fundamental: competitive positioning. A critical aspect of this is "depositioning", or the process of differentiating oneself from a competitor and poking holes in a competitor's positioning. While both entities practice it, the way in which each go about it is different is fundamentally different. The difference lies in the degree of negativity is used.
In presidential campaigns over the past 20 years, the trend has been to go more negative in terms of depositioning opponents. Both parties' candidates are guilty of it, and it has marked both the primary and general election seasons in the current campaign. Perhaps it is the easiest way to deposition the competitors, particularly in a nation that has been so polarized. But, it always runs the risk of alienating key "buyers" (voters). It worked well in 2004 as the Swift Boat campaign turned that race around.
It doesn't work, however, when the problems facing buyers are so enormous that they want to hear solutions. Polls have suggested that among the buyers that are hardest to sell -- the independents -- going negative has hurt more than it's helped candidates. It still remains to be seen, based upon the outcome of today's voting, if that turns out to be true, but to me the evidence is very strong that this way of building a political brand is not going to work this time around.
Relating this to the world of corporate branding, negatively attacking a competitor is never a smart tact to take. As it's our job to advise companies on messaging and positioning, we always start with understanding their customers, what their problems are and how companies can solve them. Of course, emphasizing unique strengths of a company and its offering and directly comparing how those strengths stack up to competitors is important. But, a predominance of negative statements disparaging a competitors' approach does a company a disservice in terms of creating a positive and sustainable brand image in the minds of buyers.
I wonder that if negative attacks end up being a detriment in this election, if we'll see the tide turn and campaigns approach competitive positioning the way most companies do. I, for one, hope that is the case. What do you think? Have the negative attacks made it harder for you to know the positions of each candidate? Can you offer examples where this has worked for companies?