Friday, November 07, 2008

Politics and Branding

Politics is the purest form of branding. In the commercial world, brands are created to give products personality and distinctiveness. There's little difference in the quality or performance of the product any more - for example the main difference between Coke and Pepsi is the brand, ie the personality that's been carefully constructed around the product, the way it looks, the way it speaks through its advertising, the way its packaging is designed, and the sponsorship it chooses to associate with. All of these things are very carefully crafted by marketing departments to reinforce what the company wants you to "feel" about its product. The feelings of the customer are to some extent manipulated through careful "brand positioning".

If you think that the notion of giving soft drinks a personality is a shocking example of how empty our era is (how or why can fizzy brown sugared water command such attention and loyalty?), then politics takes the whole thing a step further.

Politics doesn't even have a product like fizzy brown water - all it has are ideas, policies... and personalities to convince us of the merits of those ideas.

America has voted for a black man to be its next President. The media has, throughout the Obama/McCain campaign, reduced the whole thing to this single issue. But again, what people have done is voted (to a large extent) based on "brand" - colour, personality, characteristics, presentation - rather than quality or performance. That is not to say that either Obama or McCain lack quality or performance (who am I to judge that?) but the primary decision presented to the global public by the media over recent weeks has been one of brand: black or white / young or old / dynamic or boring / old has-been or a new thinker. The substance of policy has been waaaaay down the list. It would require some very late night viewing of some very obscure news channels to find a policy analysis.

This of course is nothing new, and is certainly not limited to the USA. In Northern Ireland we also vote based on colour - but rather than black v white, it's red white & blue v green white & gold. An old observation in Northern Ireland unionist politics was that if the Unionist Party had fielded a donkey with a red white and blue rosette, people would have unthinkingly voted for it.

Neil Postman, again in Amusing Ourselves to Death, wrote that in the 1858 US Presidential race, the two candidates would engage in one-to-one debates of up to 7 hours in length, using elaborate and complex language. These debates were attended by thousands of people who listened in rapt attention. By contrast, in his victory speech Barack Obama quoted the lyrics from a Sam Cooke song.

The Obama "brand", like all brands, is about emotion and feeling - a very carefully constructed brand strategy. Think I'm wrong or bonkers? Check this out - and especially this.

Sadly, brands are all that today's over-marketed and over-sentimentalised Western public can understand.