Last night's debate between Senators Obama and McCain underscores the importance of branding in politics. One of the classic mistakes made by owners of brand names is to veer off the essence of the brand in trying to be all things to all people. McCain has dumped his brand in favor of campaign tactics that seem to blow with the wind. After years of developing a record of independent thinking and candor, he has adopted a platform of hazy ideas that fly in new and half-baked almost daily. Famously comfortable with the media, he has now sequestered himself from the scrutiny of the press. He has retreated into a defensive crouch, snarling at those who opposed him.
Obama intuitively understands branding. He has set himself up as the candidate of change and made that his brand. He has stuck with it through hard times and flush times. His message points are always framed by this brand. Even Obama's trademark logo looks like something that may endure beyond the campaign.
Obama's methods of campaigning are decidedly different and more effective than those of his recent predecessors. He is truly the first presidential candidate to embrace the digital age. His campaign uses online media fluidly and expertly. Supporters like Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas have extended the Obama brand into a brand new medium: the campaign mash-up video. In marketing speak, people like Will.i.am are the brand advocates that every marketer craves.
John McCain has tarnished his "independence" brand by attacking the theme of change, embracing it, and then trying to redefine it as "maverick." Jonathan Baskin, author of Branding Only Works on Cattle, states "we can declare whatever we want about a product, but saying so isn't the same as being so." The more McCain and his running mate call themselves mavericks, the less the electorate buys it. Baskin goes on to say "differentiation emerges from experience, community, and the context of place and time." When John McCain decided to define himself on his opponent's terms instead of his own persona, he gave up his most valuable asset: not his integrity but his brand image.