Sunday, January 06, 2008

Brand, Market Adoption, and President Obama

Watching the results from Iowa come in on Thursday, and listening to Obama's victory speech and Hillary Clinton's concession speech after, I realized why Obama is only going to get stronger and Clinton only weaker. It comes down to two business concepts: brand, and market adoption.

Simply put, a brand is the emotional connection a consumer feels to a product or service. It's what the product or service stands for in the consumer's mind. What does Apple stand for? Virgin? Marlboro? Harley Davidson? Generally speaking, if you can easily and simply answer the question of what a company stands for, you're talking about a strong brand. If you can't, the brand is weak.

Part of what makes a brand powerful is internal consistency -- that is, consistency between the elements of the message, and between the message and the underlying product. Inconsistency, that is, dissonance, weakens a brand. In other words, for a brand to have power, its various elements must organically cohere. Volvo stands for safety. How would Volvo fare if the company attempted to include in its brand the idea of speed, handling, and thrills? Not well, because thrills and safety don't easily fit together in the consumer's mind. Reliability, on the other hand, is something that does cohere with safety, and therefore, conceptually, Volvo would have little trouble expanding its brand to make it mean reliability along with safety. But because Volvos are not, in fact, reliable, the extension wouldn't work -- there would be a disconnect between the brand and the underlying product.

Now let's talk candidates. What is Obama's brand? In a word, change. Change is a perfect brand for a young, charismatic, black candidate relatively new to national politics. That is, the brand is perfectly consistent with the product. Not only is there no dissonance; between the man and the message, there is perfect resonance.

Let's stay for a moment with an analysis of the connection between the brand and the product. Then we'll discuss the connection between the brand and the market.

Okay, Clinton: Clinton's brand is, in a word, experience. Certainly not a bad brand to have, generally speaking, but how well-suited in this case is the brand to the product?

I think the answer is: somewhat well-suited. Clinton has been a US senator for seven years, and no one would argue experience like that isn't relevant to the top job. What about her time as First Lady? Brand-wise, I would call that a mixed bag. Some consumers will find it relevant, others less so (the most balanced analysis I've read on the subject, by the way, is by Slate's Michael Kinsley, here). Regardless, compared to a candidate like, say, George Bush Senior, whose 1992 "experience" brand was informed by a previous term as president, eight years as vice president, ambassador to the U.N., Director of Central Intelligence, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Ambassador to China, Clinton's attempt to brand herself as the experienced candidate is relatively unsupported -- certainly not as well supported as Obama's claim to be the candidate of change.

So Clinton's brand is less resonant with the the underlying product than is Obama's, meaning Obama's brand is the more powerful, other things being equal. But other things aren't equal, and experience isn't always the better brand to run on even when the claim to it is strong (note that George Bush Sr. the candidate of experience, was defeated by the young, inexperienced Bill Clinton in 1992). There's also the question of the suitability of "experience" and "change" as brands in the current market. And here, even if Clinton were the very embodiment of experience, she has the wrong brand for 2008.

"Experience" connotes establishment, status quo, the past -- not concepts likely to be favored in a market that has seen five years of catastrophic war in Iraq; the epic incompetence of the response to Katrina; a plummeting dollar; a nine trillion dollar national debt; etc. "Experience" suggests you might be part of the problems people now want fixed. By contrast, all the associations of "change" as embodied by Obama -- freshness, excitement, the new, the future -- suggest the product in question, rather than being part of the problems of the past, will instead be the agent for solving them.

Clinton has realized her "experience" brand is not nearly as well suited for the current market as Obama's "change" brand, and has therefore been attempting to make "change" a part of her brand, as well. You can see the results in her final pre-caucus Iowa television commercial. Note how many times she talks about how she'll be "ready on day one" -- to make "a new beginning." The message (which Bill Clinton has been broadcasting, as well), is that only the candidate with experience can bring about change. Logically, there's nothing wrong with this argument. But brands aren't driven by logic. They're driven by emotion, by unconscious associations, and the implicit question in the mind of voters ("if she's so experienced, why is she only getting around to changing things now?") cannot be satisfactorily answered by logic. In other words, "experience" and "change" are not elements that cohere under a unified, powerful brand. (For a hilarious take on the ultimate in Clinton rebranding, click here.)

(Clinton's refusal to apologize for her vote authorizing the war in Iraq is similar. As a matter of logic, she can argue that she has nothing to apologize for even though if she could do it over she would vote differently because based on what she knew at the time, it was the right decision. The logic of her argument, however, doesn't satisfy the nagging, unconscious, simple question: if you made a mistake, shouldn't you apologize?)

Remember that all the national problems enumerated above arose under the stewardship of a president whose father was president eight years before him. A nepotistic succession -- the antithesis of change -- produced disastrous results. Of course the current market is more hungry for change than it is for experience (and of course the market will be leery of anything that smells of further nepotism or dynasty). Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton = more of the same problems. Barrack Obama? Now that sounds different.

A last point about brands, and then we'll move on to a discussion of market adoption. Remember: for a pitch to be maximally effective, it has to be stated indirectly -- in other words, hidden. With this principle in mind, will Clinton's recent attempts to incorporate "change" into her brand work? "Hillary has always been a change agent" doesn't feel terribly persuasive. By contrast, Obama strikes me as much more subtle about responding to the "no experience" charge. I expect that both substantively and by a firmer grasp of principles of effective communication, Obama will over time put to rest doubts about the depth of his experience. Clinton will have a much more difficult time persuading people that she's not a representative of the status quo -- substantively; because of how directly she makes her claims of change; most stubbornly, because status quo is an inherent association of her brand. Most fundamentally, because at this point in their lives and in this campaign, the candidates' brands are well established, and brands can be changed only slowly, if at all.

Okay, let's talk about market adoption. Quite a few years back, I read an eye-opening book called "Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers" by Geoffrey Moore. Moore's argument is that a new, untested product, which Moore calls "discontinuous," will be taken up by the market in five stages: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Only when a product is being adopted by the late majority and laggards can it be said to have "crossed the chasm" to the mass market (in the book business, this is usually called "breaking out"). The point is, later segments of the market refuse to adopt the new product until they see that earlier segments have adopted it. You can only reach the late adopters, who won't initially trust you, by proving yourself with the early adopters first.

Let's apply this theory to Obama. He's young, fresh, and although in fact possessed of a significant amount of relevant experience, not running primarily on an experience brand. Most importantly for purposes of crossing the chasm, of course, he is black. And just as many technology consumers won't buy a new product until they see other people are buying it already, there are many voters who are reluctant to vote for a black candidate because they don't believe he can win.

The key word is "reluctant." Certainly there are some voters who won't believe a black candidate can actually be president until they have witnessed one with his hand on the bible at a south lawn swearing-in ceremony (and maybe not even then). But all other late adopters can and will have their doubts assuaged by witnessing the candidate's success. The leading curve of these late adopters will have been persuaded of Obama's electability by his resounding victory in Iowa. Others will continue to believe Iowa was a meaningless one-off... until they see him win in New Hampshire. And South Carolina. Etc. The point is, for a new, discontinuous "product" like Obama, the mass market can only be converted by the action of early adopters like the voters in Iowa. What this means is that, more than for any other candidate, every time Obama wins, it makes him dramatically stronger. By the time he wins the Democratic nomination, only lunatic-fringe laggards would still refuse to vote for him on electability grounds, and in any market, lunatic fringe laggards are ultimately irrelevant to a product's success. Which, among other reasons, including his brand, is why I believe Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. Why I hope for that outcome -- and I do -- will be the subject of another post.

P.S. Forgive me for not responding as often as before to comments here. I also post these pieces on my discussion board, and have been spending more time there. It's a fun forum with a lot of interesting people talking about writing, the Rain books, politics, single malt whisky, and anything else that strikes people's fancy, and we do a monthly chat on writing, too, so if you have a chance, stop by and say hello. It would be good to see you.


Anonymous said...

Obama may have many fine qualities but after the last 8 years with a two term Governor as President, I will vote for someone with much more experience in world affairs and Obama is still too green on national issues and has limited experience in global affairs and the complex systems and issues facing many of the regions of the world. To me, he needs to do some time and earn some credentials. Words are inspiring, but action is what generates results. Candidily, niether party offers much for the American people as to presidential timber.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Barry for expaining so clearly the US politics. I am reading from Italy, I am a little bit confused about the candidates. In Italy we know Clinton (mostly for her husband's affairs...) , Giuliani (because of his "tolerance zero" in NY, then because of the twin towers disaster) and Obama (the first black candidate). we know very little about the others.

PBI said...


Nice post - I especially liked your use of concepts from Moore's book, the concepts from which are part of my daily professional life!

I think your analysis is spot-on, but I also believe that, on the Democratic side, you may not have given enough weight to the John Edwards factor. Those voters who will always be leery of voting for a black candidate because of electability issues have another place to go in Mr. Edwards, and I will be very interested to see what happens with his numbers, especially in South Carolina.

Also, I ran across a post this morning called Hillary Clinton's 103 Delegate Lead Over Obama, which reminds us that there is, in effect, an electoral college system within the Democratic Party. There are 850 "super delegates" who can vote as they please, and who were designated to ensure that - as happened with McGovern's 1972 candidacy - no one gets the nomination who is "out of step" with the rest of the party. While things are moving in that direction, reports of Hillary's demise are, at least at present, probably premature.

One other thing I'm really interested to see is how Ron Paul does in New Hampshire. His numbers remain in the high single digits, but if ever there was a state with a libertarian streak matched to Dr. Paul's, it's New Hampshire.

Take care,
Sensen No Sen

Joshua James said...

I agree with Paul, even if Edwards doesn't win the nom, he still had a real effect on this primary, with his constant theme of change and progressive fight . . . it's resonated with voters and, for better or worse, depending on one's choices, has been co-opted more successfully by Obama . . . Edwards has been doing this for longer than the past year and it's a hit with voters . . .

Brett Battles said...

Excellence analysis, Barry. Spot on.

PBI said...

Glenn Greenwald has a telling piece here on coverage of Edwards' campaign by the press, and the fact that his national surge has gone largely unreported. Very interesting!

Sensen No Sen

KSR said...

I agree with you on Obama being the next president (which is wonderfully exciting, no?). So I will only leave a few thoughts.

You mention that she should logically apologize because “The logic of her argument, however, doesn't satisfy the nagging, unconscious, simple question: if you made a mistake, shouldn't you apologize?” That’s just it. She didn’t make a mistake. There is nothing to apologize for, right? Her logic is that she made a vote on the data presented to her and her faith that the President would keep his word. The data was flawed (or incomplete…or both) and he didn’t keep his word. So if she was voting for A and got B, then how is that her fault? I do think the line Obama keeps using, “a mistake in judgment” is a better reflection. How can you apologize (i.e. admit) for a lack of judgment? She wasn’t the only Democrat to vote for authorization. Edwards continuously apologizes and moves on. But it never sounds right.

My wife and I are frequently discussing the election. We laugh at the Bush wanna-be’s on the Right and the fantastic field we have on the left. Edwards, Obama, or Clinton are all qualified to be president and will make an infinitely better Commander-in-Chief than any current Republican candidate. [I say “current” because it looks like Bloomberg may enter the race. That changes things.] My wife likes Clinton. She responds to Clinton’s experience messaging. As she (my wife) said after the NH results, “She just seems like she can go in on day one and take charge. I worry that Obama will flail around for awhile. We don’t have time for that.” Something to consider, sure.

Regardless of your views, this is certainly shaping up to be a dramatic race. The delegate (and super delegate) issue will make it contentious if the popular vote doesn’t go for Clinton. That will be interesting.


KSR said...

Oh yes, I wanted to leave another thought about Clinton's experience. It's clear that she is talking about her years of public service. She has only been an elected official for 7, but she has been involved for decades in state and federal policy discussions. I think that counts for something. She has given her life for the betterment of our society. Hate her if you will, but you can't take that away from her. I think it's reasonable that she runs on that experience.

I don't think it's smart for her to start talking about "change". The branding is done. Obama owns it for this election cycle. She should come up with another way to present her experience/resume so people have an understanding of her accomplishments. If I were her campaign officials, I'd run her speech from China. That was not only inspirational, but it shows her experience as a global leader.


René O'Deay said...

Surprised at you, Barry. Playing gatekeeper. Where's the 'Brand" for Edwards? Is he just dismissed from your regard?

Barry Eisler said...

René, that's a good point (although if only I *were* some kind of gatekeeper!). The Democratic death match seems to be between Hillary and Obama, so that's where I focused my analysis. If I had to describe my sense of Edward's brand, I would say "feisty champion of the underdog." Logically, there's no disconnect between the brand and the wealthy former trial lawyer behind it; emotionally, there's built-in dissonance.