What Obama and Clinton can teach UK high street retailers

What lessons can we learn from the brands on the US political campaign trail? Sex and politics has always mixed, which is perhaps why Nicole Scherzinger, lead singer of raunchy girl group Pussycat Dolls, is appearing in a promotional video for US presidential candidate Barack Obama. Even actress Scarlett Johansson brings her ample talents to the unofficial campaign film.

Ruth_120What lessons can we learn from the “brands” on the US political campaign trail? Sex and politics has always mixed, which is perhaps why Nicole Scherzinger, lead singer of raunchy girl group Pussycat Dolls, is appearing in a promotional video for US presidential candidate Barack Obama. Even actress Scarlett Johansson brings her ample talents to the unofficial campaign film.

The video “Yes We Can” is the brainchild of Will.I.Am, best known as a member of pop group Black Eyed Peas. He was inspired by a campaign speech given by Obama in New Hampshire and set the words to music with a bunch of celebrity supporters singing or rapping along.

While Obama isn’t behind the video himself, he certainly seems to approve of his celebrity-attracting reputation. The song, widely available to see on YouTube, has been posted on his website and he has allegedly recommended it to people he has met along the campaign trail.

But what is it about Brand Obama that is convincing celebrities to give up their time and appearance fees to support his cause? Alan Siegel, a branding consultant in the US, described him last week as an “energetic change agent” or “challenger brand”. In other words, he’s the Virgin of the political space, promising to be a consumer champion and offering something different from the tired market incumbents.

His Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton is more established but also more aggressive. She has less warmth than Obama but she comes with an impressive track record. Siegel warns, however, that unless she keeps her ambition in check and works on her warmth, she risks turning from a “leader brand” into an “attack brand”.

So you might equate Clinton to Google. She’s smart, got good ideas but somewhere along the way, her liberal philosophy seems to have been suppressed while her corporate ambition has been all too evident. She might want to be a rule-breaker but has found herself part of the establishment.

Looking at the other big player in the US political race, Republican John McCain, suggests another interesting branding analogy. McCain has heritage – he’s been a prisoner of war, tortured by the Vietnamese during the late 1960s, had extra-marital affairs, worked for a beer company and been involved in a property scandal. Yet he’s still popular.

He can be seen as the bounce-back brand, a little like Nestlé – the company has lots of excellent programmes in developing countries, yet it has been dogged by the powdered baby milk scandal. It operates under numerous consumer boycotts but many people still love its brands, such as KitKat and Smarties.

Brands can learn a great deal from the US campaign trail. First, let your consumers do the hard work for you. Don’t push your credibility. The “Yes We Can” video is a great piece of marketing precisely because it ­doesn’t come from Obama. The black-and-white soft focus film might be slightly nauseating but it comes across as having an honest passion behind it. You don’t want your users to come up with all your marketing campaigns, but letting them take control can sometimes have great results.

Second, if you are going to try whip up consumer emotions by using emotive music and terminology, check it actually fits your identity. McCain has been using rock singer John Mellencamp’s tunes to blast out at his campaign rallies, but the singer, who is a Democrat, has asked the candidate to stop associating himself with his music. This is just embarrassing.

Third, make sure you use new media as an integral part of your marketing, not just an add-on. It’s great to see Obama pop up on sites like Digg, Twitter or MySpace, but everybody’s doing it these days. He has racked up just over 260,000 friends on MySpace, while McCain gets 44,817 and Clinton has nearly 180,000.

However, when you consider that a Wendy’s hamburger can garner hundreds of thousands of fans on MySpace, suddenly 250,000 doesn’t look so fancy. You need to make sure your content offers something extra that can’t be found elsewhere.

But perhaps the biggest lesson that any brand can take away from the US electoral race is not to get complacent and forget your competitors. Think of the success of Republican candidate and pastor Mike Huckabee, a candidate with very little funding, who has won the interest of many people in middle America. Few would have predicted that his brand would make such an impact even a few months ago. McCain would be well advised to keep a close eye on his progress.

Whatever happens in the US presidential race, one certainty is that change will finally come to American politics. Consumers get bored of seeing the same old brands and their ideas on top all the time, unless real warmth and affection keeps them there. And that’s a lesson that’s as true in politics as it is on the high street.

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